- The Washington Times - Monday, February 8, 2021

Gregory Sharps has been detained in the D.C. Jail since October 2019 with no trial date due to the pandemic.

Like many others in the city’s jail, he faces “indefinite detention” because of the pandemic-related suspension since March of jury trials at the D.C. Superior Court.

Attorneys are citing Mr. Sharps’ monthslong wait for a trial on armed robbery charges as they advocate for ending the suspension on constitutional grounds. They argue that the right to a speedy trial is a foundational element of the justice system.

“There are people being held in cages — you know, in cells for 23 hours a day — and I think they have a right to know when they’re going to have their day in court,” defense lawyer Carrie Weletz, who is representing Mr. Sharps in an appeal, told The Washington Times.

The 23-hour cell confinement is part of the D.C. Jail’s effort to curtail the spread of the coronavirus.

“With that hour [outside the cell], they can choose things, right?” Ms. Weletz said. “My clients frequently choose not to shower because that’s their time of the day to stand in line to get a phone call with their family, which is the absolute only communication that most of them have with their family.”

Meanwhile, the number of D.C. Jail detainees awaiting trial on felony charges has risen from 444 on March 18 to 652 as of Feb. 3, a 46.8% increase, according to the D.C. Department of Corrections. The numbers include detainees awaiting trial in D.C. Superior Court and in federal courts.

In addition, 244 Department of Corrections inmates and 178 staffers have tested positive for coronavirus infection as of Friday, according to the D.C. Department of Health. One inmate and two employees reportedly have died from COVID-19.

Keena Blackmon, public information officer for the Department of Corrections, told The Times that “we are working with our federal partners to navigate the operational challenges during the pandemic.”

Suspending jury trials was necessary to stem the spread of the virus, said D.C Council member Charles Allen, Ward 6 Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee.

“Given the severe risk of the spread of COVID-19 inside courtrooms, the Court had to take unprecedented steps to suspend jury trials to protect public health,” Mr. Allen said. “While it remains the right call, we can’t overlook the hardship and challenges it has placed on anyone who is awaiting their day in court and seeking justice.”

D.C. law requires anyone formally accused of a felony to be released if they are not tried within 100 days, with some exceptions. However, the law also permits the D.C. Superior Court “to delay, toll, or otherwise grant relief from the time deadlines” under emergency circumstances.

On March 18, Superior Court Chief Judge Robert Morin issued the first of several orders suspending the 100-day limit and jury trials because of the pandemic. Trials already in progress were allowed to continue.

Late last month, the D.C. Superior Court announced that jury trials for second-degree felony charges that had been scheduled before the suspension will resume in March.

However, that change does not apply to the armed robbery charges against Gregory Sharps. Five days before jury trials were halted, he pleaded not guilty to 45 counts during his arraignment and requested trial by jury.

“Mr. Sharps’ child is over a year older from when he last saw him, which to me, you know, is terrible,” said Ms. Weletz, noting that her own child was born the same day as Mr. Sharps’. “So I understand that my 4-year-old is much different [now] than last year at this time.”

Mr. Sharps, citing a congenital heart condition, filed an emergency motion for release when trials were halted. Pointing out due process infringements and coronavirus protocol violations, he noted that one member of the U.S. Marshals Service had contracted the virus and one person at the Department of Corrections had been exposed to it.

Superior Court Judge Robert Okun denied the motion. He said “the court and criminal justice system are facing unprecedented times.”

“The Court is sympathetic to the fact that many of our most vulnerable citizens are at risk of contracting the virus,” Judge Okun wrote. “However, the fact alone does not mean that this court can or should release every defendant who is detained in the District back into the community.”

The judge said Mr. Sharps’ claim that the Department of Corrections showed intentional indifference to his health and safety “is contradicted by the numerous steps DOC has taken to protect inmate safety since the outbreak of the virus.”

Roughly two weeks later, five people in the Department of Corrections had contracted COVID-19.

The American Civil Liberties Union of D.C. filed a lawsuit against the department in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia claiming an “ongoing failure to take reasonable precautions to prevent the spread and severity of a COVID-19 outbreak.”

“Incarceration should not be a death sentence,” Scott Michelman, legal co-director of the ACLU-DC, said in a statement. “The District’s utter indifference to the health and safety to the hundreds of individuals it holds in custody puts all their lives, along with the employees who work at the Jail and the community at large, in jeopardy.”

The court has largely ruled in favor of the ACLU and issued orders last year directing the Department of Corrections to implement a number of coronavirus safety measures.

On Jan. 26, the court denied a motion by the Department of Corrections to reconsider. The ruling cited “experts’ findings of continued deficiencies regarding medical care, COVID testing, social distancing, and the confidentiality of legal calls.”

Ms. Blackmon, the Department of Corrections spokeswoman, said during a phone interview that the agency is “not in agreement with the decision, but we will continue to comply.”

“The agency has made significant efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in our facilities,” Ms. Blackmon said. “We have increased testing, we sanitize and we’ve definitely instituted the social distancing practices throughout the facility.”

The D.C. Jail has a maximum occupancy of 2,164. As of Wednesday, it was housing 1,019 male inmates, the majority of whom were awaiting trial or transfer to another facility or were convicted of misdemeanors, according to the Department of Corrections.

Public defender Laura Hankins said she is “not entirely sure what that’s going to look like” when all jury trials resume.

“I think, however, that even when the court officially starts back up again with trials, that there will still be a number of issues related to pretrial detention because of the backlog and the sheer number of defendants who are detained under a statute that imposes strict timelines,” Ms. Hankins told The Times.

The U.S. attorney general’s office for the District of Columbia and the office of the deputy mayor for public justice and safety did not return several requests for comment.

• Emily Zantow can be reached at ezantow@washingtontimes.com.

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