- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 20, 2021

At least 250 murder cases and 400 sexual assault cases are among a pandemic-related backlog of more than 3,000 violent crime cases pending in the superior court of Seattle’s largest county, a local lawyer says.

Criminal defense attorney Brad Meryhew says cases have been piling up since last March when the King County Superior Court paused jury trials amid the pandemic.

“It’s just gotten crippling,” Mr. Meryhew told The Washington Times on Tuesday, adding that one judge said it could take years to work through the clogged docket.

“These aren’t victimless crimes by any stretch,” he said. “So they need justice.”

The county is among several nationwide grappling with massive case backlogs as courthouses are reopening after months of coronavirus mitigation measures delayed or shifted hearings to be online or by phone.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Eric C. Taylor announced this week that deadlines would be extended for criminal trials in an effort to address large pandemic-related backlogs.

“Although we are advancing to try cases at a much more regular pace, we are monitoring a COVID bottleneck of back-logged criminal and civil trials building over the last 16 months that our court will control as we work diligently to address each matter,” Judge Taylor said.

The additional trial time comes after the judge decided at the end of June to lift all capacity limits and social distancing requirements at county courthouses.

In a statement on Monday, he said “The court will continue to take a measured, responsible approach to returning court operations to more normalized levels.”

In Chicago, Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans said last week that courthouses would ease trial capacity limits starting this Friday. He also said former criminal court judges currently presiding elsewhere might be shifted back to criminal court.

A spokesperson for Cook County State Attorney Kim Fox told The Times on Tuesday that “On average, we have about 8% more pending cases now [than] we did at the same time in 2020.”

The spokesperson said the most recent estimate as of June is 29,000 to 35,000 pending felony cases, compared to 28,000 to 31,000 pending felony cases at the same time last year.

The county restarted in-person criminal jury trials on March 22, which Judge Evans said “has increased the pace of resolving felony criminal cases.” 

In a statement last month, Judge Evans noted that nearly 128,000 criminal cases were closed between April 2020 and May of this year.

He also announced a new committee on criminal court reopening to address a potential flood of cases when speedy trial laws are reinstated in October. The Illinois Supreme Court initially suspended the laws last year when courts limited in-person proceedings amid the pandemic.

“What we’re trying to do is prepare for the removal of the tolling of the speedy trial statute so that the constitutional and statutory rights of defendants can be protected,” Judge Evans said in a statement. “To do this, we have established a broad-based committee of criminal justice stakeholders and other related groups to make sure we can do this as safely and expeditiously as we can.”

Ms. Foxx said earlier this month that the number of pending cases is already “significant.” The fall law change, she said, will bring a new challenge to the county’s criminal justice system.

“The system will be tested in ways it hasn’t been tested before because of the speedy trial rule being lifted and the thousands of cases that, while we’ve been working, have not been resolved in the course of the last 16 months,” she said.

⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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

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