Prosecutors gearing up for resumption of court

County Attorney Jason Lane said his office currently had 16 cases lined up for jury trial.

By Blake Spurney

While Harvey County doesn’t have the backlog of cases awaiting trial like those of larger counties, it still may be quite some time before prosecutors clean their slate of cases that have been put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

County Attorney Jason said his office currently had 16 cases lined up for jury trial, including several involving allegations of child molestation. He said he expected most of those cases to go to trial.

“It’s harder to plead out those types of cases just because of the serious nature,” he said.

Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Marla Luckert signed an administrative order a year ago suspending statutory speedy-trial guarantees and statutes of limitation in criminal proceedings under authority granted her by the Kansas Legislature. The order has been extended through a series of subsequent orders through the end of this month. Luckert’s orders keep getting extended every time the State Finance Council votes to extend the state of disaster emergency.

Lane said a couple of different bills were being considered in the Legislature that would give prosecutors between one and three years to catch up on their cases.

Before the disaster declaration brought about by the pandemic, Kansas law required prosecutors to bring a defendant to trial within 150 days of arraignment for a defendant in custody and within 180 days for one who is free on bond. If a defendant isn’t brought to trial within those timeframes, “such person shall be entitled to be discharged from further liability to be tried for the crime charged,” according to the statute. Continuances requested by the defense stop the clock from running, and there are handful of other exceptions, such as when a defendant is incompetent to stand trial.

Lane, a former prosecutor in Sedgwick County, noted a logistical challenge once the wheels of justice get chugging again. He said his former colleagues were having difficulty finding enough jurors for their caseloads and were only able to have one or two trial per week.

State Rep. Stephen Owens said another bill being considered in the Legislature would allow the chief justice to manage statutory deadlines during the time it takes to get the justice system back on track. He said Kansas was one of the few states with statutory deadlines that were stricter than those guaranteed defendants under the U.S. Constitution.

“We’re trying to extend that in a couple of different ways,” he said. “The last thing we want is statutory speedy-trial problems that lets murderers and rapists go free.”

Lane said the Ninth Judicial Circuit submitted a plan for the resumption of jury trails to the Kansas Supreme Court for review.

“Our guess is in May we’ll start seeing jury trials again,” he said.

Lane also has instituted some new protocols since he took office in January that he said should make the system more efficient. He also said the changes included working more closely with law enforcement during the pendency of a case. He said he used his background as an industrial engineer in setting up the protocols.

“We’ve had some issues with cases starting to backlog and not being able to get to them in a prompt manner,” he said.

Lane also has hired a new assistant county attorney, Heather Figger, who has a lot of experience in prosecuting domestic violence cases. He said the number of property and lesser crimes had declined during the pandemic, but instances of violent crime have increased. The frequency of care-and-treatment and mental-health cases also has been on the rise.

“I think that’s expected with the pandemic and the anxiety caused by it,” he said.

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