Cook County courts are scheduled to resume jury trials on Monday, but it will be a slow start that doesn’t offer much hope for relieving the massive case backlog that’s built up over a yearlong pandemic shutdown.
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office said there are more than 28,000 pending cases right now — about 35% higher than the number before COVID-19 forced an end to normal court operations.
“The system is not going to be able to withstand a thousand trials within the next several months, so we know that we’re going to have to be able to dispose of them in alternative ways,” Foxx said in an exclusive interview with WBEZ ahead of the reopening.
She indicated that her office would be seeking plea deals to dispose of cases without trials and said she’s instructing her prosecutors to have a “laser-like focus” on violent crimes.
“As we look at what’s happening in the county in the last year, as we’ve seen shootings and homicides go up, as we’ve seen carjackings go up, that is the priority. And we recognize that our resources are limited, and we are often overwhelmed with a court system that requires us to choose how we use the limited number of staff that we have,” Foxx said. “For people who are afraid to go outside of their homes to go pump gas, to go to the grocery store, that fear is very real. And so we want to be able to hold people who engage in that conduct accountable.”
Cook County has gone more than a year without a jury trial because of COVID-19, and the constitutional right to a speedy trial is suspended statewide.
Foxx addressed her staff in a meeting Friday in preparation for the court’s first steps toward a return to normal. County prosecutors, along with judges, public defenders and other court staff will be tasked with resolving the cases of thousands of people left in limbo because of the shutdown. They will have to do so in a court system that is still severely hampered by the novel coronavirus, and that even in normal times can be agonizingly slow for defendants and victims alike.
As of Friday, more than 5,000 people were in the Cook County jail, and another 3,500 were on electronic monitoring awaiting trial.
Will jurors show up?
The first case scheduled to go to trial on Monday had been an illegal gun possession case. However, prosecutors dropped those charges on Friday because they could not meet their burden of proof to proceed, according to a spokeswoman.
Now, the first case scheduled to go before a jury involves an alleged burglary.
Fifty jurors need to show up Monday for a full jury pool.
The first round of summonses went out last month, along with a letter from Chief Judge Timothy Evans assuring prospective jurors that “every reasonable precaution will be taken to protect the health and safety of the jurors, parties, witnesses, lawyers and court staff during jury selection and the trial to follow.”
Foxx said she thinks jurors will come based on what’s happened in other jurisdictions and the increasing availability of the COVID-19 vaccine. She was less certain of what the next few months will look like in terms of the pace of the court system.
“What Monday will be is kind of the turning on of the spigot to see that we’re able to actually get back into the courthouse, you know, assemble a jury, get trials going. The question is: Does it turn from a drip to a fire hydrant in the next several months?” Foxx said.
She said that will depend on whether the Illinois Supreme Court decides to lift the suspension on the right to a speedy trial. Foxx said she believes the state’s highest court will make that decision sooner rather than later.
“If that becomes the case, I would anticipate a lot of demands for trial, which will certainly ramp up the pace of what happens in the courtrooms,” Foxx said. “But right now, while speedy trials have been tolled and we’re now getting back into the courthouse, it’s going to be a drip, but I think a soon escalating flow of cases.”