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Jury trials resuming in some Vermont counties

Updated: Jun. 10, 2021 at 5:11 PM EDT
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RUTLAND, Vt. (WCAX) - Jury trials are slowly resuming in Vermont. There are many COVID precautions being made to courtrooms and some locations can resume now while others are still preparing. One of the biggest changes is picking jurors in smaller groups or eliminating people before they even arrive.

Attorneys we spoke to say the trials thus far have been fair, but backlog issues and the prioritization of those cases continue to be a problem.

“It was really nice to be back in court with people there, even if it was with masks and other strange circumstances,” said Washington County’s State’s Attorney Rory Thibault, who took part in a two-day jury trial in May. “The resumption of jury trials really opens back up now for the justice system to work as it was intended to.”

Cabot Teachout was the defense attorney in a one-day jury trial in Windsor County. He says the trial was fair, but the process was not necessarily efficient. “There were restrictions on what the jury could see, how the jury could see it, and interacting hand to hand with witnesses,” Cabot said. He says the biggest problem currently is the right to a speedy trial. He has one client who has been behind bars awaiting trial since 2019. “Cases are coming in a lot faster than they are going out and there is an enormous backlog of cases.”

Janssen Willhoit is a defense attorney in Windham County who agrees with Teachout. He has a trial coming up for a client who is not currently incarcerated but has about a dozen others who are. “Other clients that, to be honest, have taken deals they shouldn’t have taken. But they said, ‘Janssen, I want to get out, I want to get out of jail.’ And so cases they really needed to be tried, weren’t able to get tried,” Willhoit said.

But Thibault says this problem is dealt with differently in each county. In Washington County, they are making it a priority to try those currently incarcerated. “We identified a number of cases involving individuals who are incarcerated. The particular defendant we had in trial last month was incarcerated,” he said.

There were two other jury trials in Windham and Rutland Counties. In both cases, the state dismissed the cases before they went to the jury. Coming up this summer nine of the 14 counties have trials scheduled.

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