NASSAU COUNTY, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) — Courts will open across Long Island on Friday for the first time since the coronavirus shutdown started, but for very limited in-person functions.
It has been a slow, phased-in opening across the state, with many court cases on indefinite hold, CBS2’s Carolyn Gusoff reported Wednesday.
It has been been justice delayed for months. Courts have been closed for all but emergency business. All sentencings have been deemed non-essential.
“We are in a standstill right now,” Alisa McMorris said.
For the parents of Boy Scout Andrew McMorris, it has been healing delayed. The sentencing of the convicted drunk driver who struck and killed their son was twice put off.
“He is still not in jail. He still has not paid the consequences for his actions,” John McMorris said. “We understand the pandemic, totally understandable, but it’s completely agonizing for us.”
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It’s the situation for the family of Willis Frost. His killer was retried and re-convicted, but there is no sentencing date in sight.
“Because of the coronavirus, it has been delayed indefinitely,” said the victim’s niece, Judy Stevens.
The shutdown halted New York’s massive court system, creating an unthinkable backlog. Lawsuits, divorces, domestic and custody cases, and housing disputes were all put on hold, while some of those waiting for their day in court are behind bars.
“The clients that many of us have that are incarcerated are not virtually incarcerated. They’re actually in jail, and they’ve been languishing there for months while the courts have been closed,” defense attorney Bruce Barket said.
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Jails have banned visits and instituted cell lockdowns. The right to a speedy trial is also on hold and there’s no telling when jury trials will return.
“If you’re a juror, you’re sitting an inch away from the juror next to you and that presents a bit of a problem. I don’t see it happening in 2020 at all for a jury trial,” said Chris McGrath, a member of the Task Force to Reopen Courts.
And yet, there has been progress. Judges and staff have been returning to courthouses where new lawsuits can be filed, but with strict density controls, teleconferencing, COVID-19 screening, and masks required, sanitizing, and plexiglas partitions.
“This is not a return to business as usual, but rather it’s a return to a new normal defined by limited courthouse traffic and procedures and safety measures designed to reduce the risk of virus transmission,” said the Hon. Janet DiFiore, New York state’s chief judge.
The McMorris family has been pleading to next find a way to move the justice system forward.
“We can do this in large courtrooms, socially distant. We can video in people that need to be videoed in,” Alisa McMorris said.
But because four court employees, including three judges, have died of COVID-19 the chief judge said given what’s at stake, there will not be any safety shortcuts.