CORONAVIRUS

Delayed jury trials due to COVID-19 likely to cause big backlog in Iowa

Both victims and defendants on hold during pandemic

Investigators, including the state medical examiner, work the scene March 1, 2019, at 4069 Soutter Ave. SE in Cedar Rapi
Investigators, including the state medical examiner, work the scene March 1, 2019, at 4069 Soutter Ave. SE in Cedar Rapids. Authorities say Chris Bagley was killed in a mobile home belonging to defendant Paul Hoff, then buried in the yard at this house. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Criminal jury trials get bumped ahead routinely even in normal times — prosecutors and defense lawyers need more time to prepare, or file motions to take up legal issues or defendants switch lawyers — and it can create a backlog.

During a pandemic, it’s far worse because all jury trials in Iowa have been delayed. They first were delayed in March, briefly started again in mid-September, and then postponed again with the surge in November.

The Iowa Supreme Court ordered there would be no jury trials until Feb. 1. The court noted the current high rate of positive tests in making this determination earlier this month.

All non-jury trials and some other face-to-face proceedings still can go forward, along with hearings conducted over the phone and video.

The state Supreme Court on Tuesday again encouraged judges to allow more remote proceedings in criminal and civil cases.

When the jury trials restarted in September, the 6th Judicial District — Linn, Johnson, Jones, Iowa, Tama and Benton counties — decided there would be one only trial a week. Usually, each courthouse might have two or three going at the same time, but each building has limited space. In order to maintain social distancing, there has to be fewer people in the hallways and courtrooms, and there aren’t enough larger courtrooms. Only a handful of trials, mostly misdemeanor cases, went forward in mid-September through Nov. 15.

Backlog uncertain

Linn County prosecutors said they don’t know what the backlog might look like because they don’t know how long this surge or any next one will last. Also, a high percentage of cases are resolved by plea deals.

Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden said everything is dependent on how long it takes to get to a point where jury trials can be safely conducted again.

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“Assuming we can begin on Feb. 1, much will depend on when we are able to conduct trials without practicing social distancing and taking other safety precautions that currently restrict us to one jury trial per week,” Vander Sanden said. “Even with a vaccine on the verge of availability, I don’t expect the court system would or should relax current health and safety practices any time soon.”

Vander Sanden predicts it might take three or four years to work through the backlog of criminal and civil jury trials.

First Assistant Linn County Attorney Nick Maybanks said they don’t know how many cases would have gone to trial already had it not been for the pandemic.

“Also, there’s really no telling when some of them will go to trial,” Maybanks noted. “That will depend on how the courts prioritize the cases and what the status of the case will be when it hits the trial docket. Many of us are just in a wait-and-see mode right now.”

He also pointed out that while there is concern that those accused of crimes have to continue to wait for their day in court, it’s often overlooked how these delays will impact the “survivors seeking justice and finality for what they have suffered.”

“The survivors have been hit hard by these delays,” Maybanks said. “Many of them already distrust the system. Keeping them on board has become challenging. They also want their day in court.”

Here are a few of the more serious felony jury trials that have been delayed in Linn and Johnson counties as a result of the order. This list includes cases that were previously set to start in September, December or January:

Linn County cases

Paul Hoff, 40, of Cedar Rapids: He is charged with obstruction of prosecution and abuse of corpse in the death of Chris Bagley, 31, of Walker, who went missing and authorities say was killed Dec. 14, 2018, in Hoff’s mobile home in southeast Cedar Rapids. Hoff is accused of lying to police and covering up Bagley’s death.

Hoff, a former member of the Aryan Brotherhood, a neo-Nazi group active in prisons, is already serving 14 years in federal prison on drug and firearm charges. Two other men, Drew Blahnik, 33, and Drew Wagner, 34, are accused of killing Bagley during a fight over drug robberies of Andrew Shaw, 31, a convicted large-scale marijuana trafficker. Authorities say Bagley, Blahnik, Wagner and Hoff sold drugs for him.

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Hoff’s trial was set for Dec. 7 and has been reset to May 3. If convicted, he faces up to seven years in prison.

Thomas Williams, 57, of Cedar Rapids: The former College Community School District bus driver is charged with second-degree kidnapping and enticing a minor, both felonies, and sexual exploitation by a school employee and false imprisonment, both misdemeanors. He is accused of kidnapping a 10-year-girl, who attends Prairie Hill Elementary School, and attempting to sexually abuse her on a bus Jan. 2.

His trial was set for Jan. 25 and will have to be reset.

Mary Jane Jackson Thomas, 47, of Cedar Rapids: She is charged with first-degree kidnapping, two counts each of willfully causing serious injury, willfully causing bodily injury and going armed with intent. She is accused of physically abusing a 15-year-old girl repeatedly between April 1 and Oct. 11, 2019.

The complaint showed the girl described several incidents of being hit with a hammer and beaten with an electrical cord. She said Jackson Thomas stabbed her wrist with a screwdriver.

The girl was taken to a hospital for treatment, and afterward she walked into the Cedar Rapids Police Department to report the abuse.

Her trial was set for Jan. 11 but has been reset March 23. If convicted of first-degree kidnapping, Jackson Thomas faces life in prison.

James Stephan Phillips, 19, of Cedar Rapids: He is charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit a forcible felony, first-degree theft and going armed with intent in the fatal shooting of Leland Harris, 34, of Cedar Rapids, on Nov. 22, 2017. Harris died from gunshot wounds, according to a medical examiner.

The case went unsolved for two years before Phillips, then 17, was charged last year. The complaint showed Phillips shot Harris from the back seat of a car. The first shot killed Harris, but Phillips fired two more shots, striking Harris after pushing him out of a vehicle, the complaint stated.

Another man, Lloyd Koger, 43, of Cedar Rapids, was also charged.

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Phillips’ trial was set Dec. 7 and has been reset to April 12. If convicted on murder charge, he faces life in prison.

Johnson County cases

Patrick Bland, 32, of Rockford, Ill., Durojaiya A. Rosa, 22, and Reginald Little, 44, both of Iowa City: They are each charged with first-degree murder. A complaint showed police responded to a report of a shooting at 1960 Broadway St. and found Kejuan Winters, 21, of Iowa City, with multiple gunshot wounds April 20.

The complaints showed Rosa and Little plotted to rob Winters. Rosa told police they didn’t intend to kill him.

Police said Bland also was there and was the “principal” in the fatal shooting. The gun, which he had illegally, was used in the shooting and his cellphone was found at the scene, police said.

Trials for Bland and Rosa were set for Jan. 5 and will be reset.

Little’s trial is set for April 6.

Tyris D. Winters, 41, of Peoria: Winters is the father of Kejuan Winters and is charged with attempted murder after confronting another person later on April 20 about his son’s death. He shot that person in the head and foot, according to a complaint.

Winters’ trial is set for Jan. 26 and will be reset.

Carlos Hivento, 32, of Cedar Rapids: He is charged with sexually abusing four women in 2017 and 2018 and faces seven counts of third-degree sexual abuse and two counts of invasion of privacy.

A criminal complaint showed there were four incidents of sexual abuse with a 19-year-old woman on Nov. 18, 2018. The other sex abuse charges involve three different women. If convicted, he faces up to 74 years in prison. Hivento’s trial was set for Jan. 19 but now has been reset to March 9.

Jorge Maldonado, 28, of Iowa City: He is charged with four counts of first-degree sexual abuse and two counts of second-degree sexual abuse. He is accused of sexually abusing a 12-year-old and another child younger than 12 on multiple occasions from June 1 to Dec. 31, 2019.

His trial date hasn’t been reset at this time.

Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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