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Nevada County jury trials remain in doubt as pandemic continues

Michael O’Dell has been in custody since November 2018 on charges of sexually abusing two children.

His case has been dragging through the court system for more than 18 months, and was first set for trial last October, reset for April 21 and then rescheduled for June 16.

Now, even though he is facing 45 years to life in prison if convicted, O’Dell just wants to move forward. Last month he filed a demand for a speedy trial and asked to revoke a previously issued “time waiver” of that right.

Problem is, all jury trials in Nevada County Superior Court, and statewide, face continued postponements due to the COVID-19 crisis.

California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye first extended criminal trial deadlines and suspended jury trials for 60 days in a March 23 order. On April 29, she further extended deadlines for California’s Superior Courts to hold criminal trials during the pandemic to a total of 90 days.

But Cantil-Sakauye appeared to hold out an option for local courts to move ahead with trials under certain circumstances, with the order urging courts to “work with justice partners to hold trials earlier if possible, including through the use of remote technology when appropriate.” But they must be able to do so while complying with health and safety laws, the order states.

“The continuous operation of our courts is essential for our constitutional form of government, and for providing due process and protecting the public. However, courts are clearly places of high risk during this pandemic,” Cantil-Sakauye wrote.

Practical application unclear

Cantil-Sakauye’s orders have caused some confusion as courts struggle to anticipate what it might take to conduct a jury trial.

“No jury trials are taking place currently,” said Nevada County Assistant District Attorney Chris Walsh. “There is a little bit of movement toward relaxing (social distancing guidelines) — but exactly when jury trials fall into that would be pure speculation.”

Walsh noted that some preliminary evidentiary hearings are still going forward, as well as bail review hearings for in-custody defendants, adding, “There are steps being done to make sure people aren’t being wrongfully held.”

But suspending jury trials for a period of months is “very significant,” Walsh said, adding, “There are potential constitutional ramifications.”

Nevada County Public Defender Keri Klein also sees potential issues looming.

“Some jurisdictions are saying no trials until December,” Klein said. “You can’t delay justice that long.”

According to Klein, courts around the state are interpreting the state order in wildly varying ways.

“My reading of the order is that if a court can do a trial while maintaining appropriate social distancing, then a trial can proceed. I think it will be seen on a case by case basis, based on what we can do in a courtroom.”

Court Executive Officer Jason Galkin said Nevada County is currently investigating how it might be possible to hold jury trials.

“As you might imagine, there are quite a number of factors involved that could make this difficult, including physical space limitations within the courthouse,” Galkin said in an email. “We are exploring those factors so we can be prepared for future phases of the state and local response to the pandemic.”

Logistics

Last week, six trials on the court calendar in Nevada City and Truckee were called off. Klein said her office currently has cases set to go to trial in June, while Walsh said it was doubtful any June trials will proceed.

On May 4, O’Dell’s attorney appeared by phone to hash out his trial issues with Superior Court Judge Robert Tice-Raskin and Deputy District Attorney Helenaz Hill. Tice-Raskin acknowledged during the hearing that holding a trial with social distancing guidelines will be problematic at best.

“It will require careful planning,” he said. “It would require, in all likelihood, utilizing one of our largest courtrooms and seating the jury outside the traditional jury box, using the audience space. I envision a theoretical means by which we might be able to call in jury panels. The real question will become, setting those logistics aside, whether we will honestly have enough jurors respond to their summons, to have a fair cross-section from which parties can select jurors.”

Tice-Raskin stressed, however, that all such solutions remain theoretical until Nevada County actually puts them into practice.

O’Dell’s trial currently remains set for June 16, but likely will be postponed. He will be back in court for a trial readiness conference on May 28. A cook at the Nevada County Jail at the time of his arrest, O’Dell remained in custody Monday in the Placer County Jail without bail.

Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at lizk@theunion.com.


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