The Nebraska Supreme Court lacks the authority to halt evictions amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Chief Justice Mike Heavican said in a news release Monday.
Late last week, organizations began calling on Heavican and the court to temporarily suspend evictions so people were not being kicked out of their homes as public health officials urged people to stay home.
In the release, Heavican said he is mindful of the difficulties presented to some people.
State law requires the court to hold an eviction hearing between 10 and 14 days after a tenant has received their eviction notice, the chief justice said.
"The Supreme Court cannot, nor can the Chief Justice, in the guise of an administrative order, order otherwise," Heavican said.
Court operations continue to remain open and accessible in all 93 counties, the chief justice said last week.
Lancaster County Public Defender Joe Nigro says he’s asked his attorneys to prioritize efforts to get as many people out of the county jail as possible in the coming days in response to the looming threat of COVID-19.
“The virus is going to spread like crazy when it gets to the jail, and it’s not going to spare anybody,” the defense attorney said Monday. “Our number one priority is we need to keep people alive."
Nigro said if someone doesn’t pose a serious risk of harm to someone else, they should be released. So he’s directed his attorneys to focus on asking judges to consider bond reductions, house arrest or furloughs of misdemeanor sentences.
They’re trying to get as many people in front of judges as they can, Nigro said. Often by video.
He said he'd been following news about the coronavirus closely as it has unfolded over recent months. His office west of the Hall of Justice was quick to put up signs asking people with symptoms not to come in and to take steps to try to limit in-person meetings.
But he knew county jails, where his attorneys regularly have gone to meet with clients, could become a dangerous place — for attorneys, inmates and jail staff alike — once the virus gets there.
Nigro said the country’s county jails, which hold people accused of serious crimes before trial and people sentenced on misdemeanors, have been likened to cruise ships where the virus has been seen to spread rampantly.
So Nigro reached out to Lancaster County judges and the court administrator, trying to instill a sense of urgency. COVID-19 is in Lincoln and will hit the jail at some point. If they take steps now, fewer people could become sick or die, he said.
“We have to significantly reduce that jail population,” Nigro said.
Last week, the population at the Lancaster County Department of Corrections went from 621 to 596.
“Not nearly enough, in my opinion,” Nigro said.
He said he’s hoping they can make a further dent in that number this week.
“We understand there are going to be certain charges where those folks may not get out. But there shouldn’t be anyone in on a drug charge or a theft or a forgery,” Nigro said.
He said he’d like to see the jail population reduced to 100 or 200 people.
Brad Johnson, the jail’s administrator, said he doesn’t know how realistic those numbers are. But he said he thinks there’s still some room for the numbers to go down. He said they’ve expanded video court capacity, hoping to see more bond reviews and house arrest efforts in the next week or so.
“I think everybody’s taking that seriously and doing everything they can,” he said.
As of Monday morning, they were down to 557 people, 213 of them serving misdemeanor sentences and the rest awaiting trial.
Johnson called the reduction a combined effort, saying law enforcement has been working hard to cite and release folks if they don’t pose an immediate risk to the community, and the courts have been adjusting bonds and letting people out a "little more liberally.”
He said Community Corrections also has been looking at the possibility of releasing more people with ankle monitors, but demand for the devices is up as jails across the country are working to do the same.
Right now, he said, no one in the jail is showing any symptoms of COVID-19. No one has been isolated or quarantined.
Johnson said they're doing everything they can do to keep inmates and staff healthy. They’ve stepped up cleaning and disinfecting of high-touch areas, encouraged staff to wear gloves and started screening anyone coming into the jail, checking for a fever and other symptoms.
Last week, they shut off visitors and volunteers and limited professional access to try to slow any introductions of the virus. Johnson said they’re allowing inmates more phone calls so they can stay in contact with their families.
They’ve got contingency plans in place for when inmates need to be isolated or quarantined, which becomes very staff intensive.
“It’s not ideal,” he said. “But that’s the environment we’re in right now."
As investigatory bodies, grand juries can recommend changes to policies or practices to law enforcement agencies, even in cases where no wrongdoing is found.
Before a 2016 change in state law, any suggestions made to police departments, sheriff’s offices and county jails — as well as the testimony, evidence and questions that led the grand jury to offer them — were shielded from view, kept secret like the rest of the grand jury process.
Statute allows the publicly available grand jury materials to exclude “the names of the grand jurors or their deliberations,” but newly available access to the transcripts of the proceedings help provide insight into what the jurors were thinking.
However, a Journal Star review found the grand jury's recommendations for new policies or practices are not always acted upon or even shared with agencies.
A June 21, 2019, grand jury convened in Hall County District Court found no criminal wrongdoing by Grand Island Police Officer Rick Ehlers after he shot and killed Benjamin Melendez, who had stabbed Ehlers in the face with a knife.
But the grand jurors said they believed emergency dispatchers could have provided more information to Ehlers and Sgt. Jason Allan about Melendez’s state of mind, and those details might have helped prevent the fatal encounter.
“We the grand jury feel that the 911 dispatchers should have more fully relayed the threats and the caller’s instability and agitation to the responding officers thus making the officers better prepared for the situation at hand,” the handwritten note included in the grand jury report reads.
During testimony, the grand jury questioned Brad Butler, an investigator with the Kearney Police Department who investigated Melendez’s death on the night of March 13, 2019.
Earlier that evening, according to a 911 recording and transcript entered into evidence, Melendez, who was upset, called the Grand Island Communication Center after receiving a call from the “Nebraska Police Emergency Center.”
Dispatchers sent officers to Melendez’s home, but after knocking on the door and getting no answer, they left. An irate Melendez called 911 a second time.
“You guys are stalking me,” said the 29-year-old who suffered from psychosis and depression, according to court documents. “I called the number that called me first and then the police showed up. Are you kidding me? I’m pretty sure you broke my rights and he was breaking the law.”
Melendez threatened to stab an officer in the eye if they approached his house again, and after a tense back and forth with the dispatcher, abruptly hung up.
Police were then dispatched a second time to his house in the 1500 block of St. Paul Road and when they knocked again, the grand jury learned Melendez answered the door naked, holding a kitchen knife in his right hand.
He lunged at Ehlers, stabbing him just below the left eye and cutting him twice more on the head. Allan managed to pin Melendez against a railing on the front porch, but when he disengaged and backed away, Melendez turned toward the sergeant.
That’s when Ehlers fired five shots, hitting Melendez four times in the back and once in the arm. He was later pronounced dead at a Grand Island hospital. The whole incident took a matter of seconds, according to a dash cam video played for the grand jury.
After reviewing the evidence, the recurring question from jurors was whether or not officers were made aware of the threat before they went to Melendez’s house a second time.
“No, they were not,” Butler responded.
“Is that normal policy?” the juror asked.
“Every agency and every dispatcher is different because there’s different ways that you can receive that information,” Butler testified. “You can receive it on your mobile data terminal, it can be sent to your computer. Some officers will check that and recheck it because it will give updates. Some dispatchers will call you on the radio to give updates.”
During a review of the situation that included the police department, Jon Rosenlund, the emergency management director who oversees the Grand Island Communication Center, said the department determined it had adequately communicated Melendez’s threats to the officers over the radio.
“The dispatcher told him ‘He’s very agitated and he said he has a knife,’” Rosenlund said.
But no dispatchers were called to testify by prosecutors or the grand jury. Nor was the grand jury’s recommendation that dispatchers in the future should better communicate a caller’s “instability and agitation” relayed to decision-makers in the department, Rosenlund added.
Changes at jail made after internal review
Similarly, three recommendations issued by a 2019 grand jury concerning Sarpy County Jail procedures following the death of an Illinois woman in its custody were never communicated directly to jail administrators.
Bellevue Police found Danielle Harbison slumped behind the wheel of her truck on the evening of June 23, 2018, and called the rescue department to evaluate her medically, but the 37-year-old declined help, the grand jury learned from Officer Aaron Jezek and paramedic Erin McCormick.
Harbison was instead taken to the Sarpy County Jail on suspected driving under the influence of alcohol.
Jurors also questioned jail guards about how frequently they conducted checks, what those checks entailed, as well as what policies were in place for individuals who were jailed with blood alcohol levels several times the legal limit. A preliminary breath test measured Harbison at 0.34, while a second test at the jail showed it had dropped to 0.32 when she arrived at the jail.
“At any point, did you feel she needed to see the onsite nurse?” one juror asked Alyssa Runge, a Blair police officer who was then working the night shift in the Sarpy County Jail.
“Would you take a 0.34 to the hospital?” another asked.
The grand jury learned the jail staff had asked their supervisors if Harbison's BAC was too high to accept her into their custody, but learned from Lt. Mark Topil there was no cutoff.
Topil told the jury how he instead instructed jail staff to put Harbison in a cell directly opposite from the booking area, check her every 15 minutes and provide her with fluids.
Jail staff performed 30 checks on Harbison over the next five hours, but shortly before 2 a.m. found she had stopped breathing.
They immediately called 911, according to testimony during the grand jury, and pulled her into the hallway to begin CPR. She was pronounced dead less than an hour later at a Bellevue hospital.
A coroner ruled alcohol toxicity was the cause of death. Family members told investigators Harbison was an alcoholic and had been hospitalized several times within the last year.
The grand jury report submitted recommendations to the court, which included asking medical and law enforcement representatives to:
* Set a standardized BAC level requiring medical clearance.
* Notify nurses if an inmate meets that standard.
* Employ a nurse onsite at all times.
Interviewed earlier this month by the Journal Star, Lt. Jacob Betsworth, who now oversees the unit, said about the recommendations “it’s unclear if they were provided directly to the jail.”
Like the Grand Island 911 center, Sarpy County conducted its own internal review and enacted new policies, Betsworth added, many of which meet the grand jury's suggestions.
Now, if officers bring anyone to the jail whose BAC measures above 0.20 — two and a half times above the legal limit — those individuals need to be cleared by a hospital first. The jail also extended the hours a nurse is at the facility, and made those employees on call when they are not present.
Those reviews and policy changes were done before the grand jury filed its report, Betsworth said.
“After any kind of incident, we look at whether it was a failure of policy or a failure of people,” he said. In the instance investigated by the grand jury, no discipline was recommended for any employees.
The high-profile killings of several African Americans by police — and subsequent refusal of grand juries to indict the officers involved — sparked mass protests in 2014 and 2015 and led several states to propose reforms to the secretive court process.
Nebraska was among the few states that lifted the absolute veil of secrecy grand juries have operated behind for centuries through an effort led by Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, with the backing of top prosecutors and police chiefs in Lancaster and Douglas counties.
“As everybody knows, there have been any number of police killings which were presented to grand juries to investigate whether the officers violated any law by their conduct,” Chambers told the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee in 2016, referring to the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice at the hands of police in Missouri, Ohio and New York.
“In many of those instances, the grand jury would not find or hand down or up an indictment, and nothing would be made available to the public from that proceeding,” Chambers added.
“Grand jury proceedings from the beginning were conducted in secret, and that very secrecy was what led to doubt and suspicion on the part of the public.”
While grand juries find their origin in 12th-century common law, the tradition of total grand jury secrecy extends back as far as the 1680s, when the English Parliament gave 23-member juries authority to withhold any evidence, witnesses and testimony from the public — even who was the target of the grand jury itself.
The process was later adopted in the American colonies and included in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ratified in 1791. States also included the use of grand juries in their own constitutions, but not all use them. Those that do have maintained the principle of secrecy, however.
Chambers’ bill, which gained approval in the Legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Pete Ricketts, required grand juries in Nebraska, which are called to investigate the deaths of any individual being apprehended by law enforcement or who are in custody, to publish a report of its conclusions.
Those reports can include any recommendations the grand jury issued to a law enforcement or corrections department, and the new statute also allowed the public to review the transcripts and exhibits once the document is submitted to the court clerk.
The improved access and transparency in Nebraska was meant to ease public suspicion that the process was weighted toward exonerating officers who had killed suspects in the line of duty, or what Chambers referred to as “a scenario where Jesse James is investigating Frank James,” referencing the Wild West outlaws.
It also moved Nebraska among a small group of states that allow the public to inspect and review the grand jury process when the jury finishes its work.
Florida allows materials submitted to the grand jury to be accessed through its open record laws, while Colorado amended its law in 2015 to require grand juries called to investigate the killings of civilians by police to compile a report about their findings. The vast majority of states continue to block grand jury proceedings entirely.
Journal Star tests law
Since the Nebraska law went into effect on July 1, 2016, there have been at least 114 grand juries convened in the state's 93 counties.
All but two of those investigations ended in a finding of "no true bill," or with no indictments. A Douglas County grand jury indicted two Omaha police officers in 2017, while a Lancaster County grand jury indicted a 16-year-old for manslaughter in 2019 after he caused a crash that killed a passenger in the vehicle he was driving during a police pursuit.
In all, district courts in at least 24 counties provided the name of the individual whose death initiated a grand jury as well as the report written at the end of the proceeding and any recommendations issued.
Lancaster County District Court Clerk Troy Hawk said the grand jury reports and transcripts are usually filed with the court one or two weeks after the investigation concludes and are kept with other public documents.
When asked by the Journal Star, his office turned over a spreadsheet listing all 43 grand juries — most originating from the deaths of inmates within the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services — that have convened in the county since the law changed, including the basic findings of the grand jury.
Few people request to review the information, he said, aside from local reporters. Those who do can't take the bound volumes out of the office, and may be assigned someone "to keep an eye on them," Hawk said.
Counties treat requests differently
Although state law says grand jury materials "shall be available for public review," district courts differ on how that information can be accessed.
The Journal Star asked district court clerks to provide the names of individuals whose deaths launched a grand jury investigation, a copy of the grand jury report including the finding of true bill or no true bill, as well as any recommendations offered by the grand jury.
About two-thirds of Nebraska's 93 counties responded to the informal email requesting information — even if there were no grand juries in their respective courts — while the remaining 33 counties were sent public records requests seeking copies of any available grand jury report.
Some counties, including Buffalo, Madison, Polk and Washington, provided the names of individuals whose deaths triggered a grand jury investigation, but did not provide any further information responding to the Journal Star's inquiry.
Others, including Jefferson County, provided basic information and offered to schedule a time to review the grand jury report, transcript and exhibits in the district court clerk's office. A Beatrice Daily Sun reporter, working with the Journal Star on this project, was able to review the transcripts and exhibits in the court's Fairbury office.
Sarpy County turned over the reports and recommendations of its six grand jury reports, and allowed a reporter to review one case at the courthouse in Papillion as long as no copies were made or photographs taken of the material. The reporter was asked to leave their phone outside of the conference room where the review took place.
Six counties — Clay, Loup, Morrill, Scotts Bluff, Sherman and York — declined to provide even the basic grand jury information following informal inquiries and formal written requests under the Nebraska Public Records Act.
Scotts Bluff County Attorney Dave Eubanks relied upon a strict reading of the statute in his denial letter to the Journal Star: “In the case of ‘in custody deaths,’ … a transcript, including any exhibits of the grand jury proceedings, shall be prepared at court expense and shall be filed with the court where it shall be available for public review.
“Our court interprets this to mean that, while the transcript is prepared and made available for public review, it must be reviewed at the court where it is filed,” Eubanks wrote. “Copies may not be made, nor can copies be disseminated.”
Clay County Attorney Ted Griess said something similar: "They can be reviewed in the Clerk of District Court's Office."
Attorney moves to block release
A petition to the Hall County District Court seeking a copy of a grand jury transcript in the shooting death of Benjamin Melendez, a Grand Island man who attacked police with a knife on his front porch last year, was also denied after County Attorney Marty Klein filed a motion to block its release.
Although Hall County made the grand jury report available for review — done over two scheduled hours in the presence of a sheriff’s deputy — District Court Judge Mark Young said at a hearing last week he would use a close reading of the language approved by the Legislature and allow the grand jury transcript to be reviewed, not copied.
Sheridan County released an 871-page transcript from a grand jury that investigated the shooting death of Clarence Leading Fighter, a 32-year-old Lakota man shot and killed by police in Rushville, to the Rapid City Journal after the South Dakota newspaper paid $272, which covered the actual cost of copies, the time spent copying and postage.
Why the differences between counties?
Hawk said the discrepancy from county to county exists because the 2016 law said grand jury reports were available for public review, but stopped short of classifying them as a document subject to the Nebraska Public Records Act.
Furthermore, grand jury secrecy has been the paradigm for centuries, and judicial branch staff have been slow to adapt to the change.
"Part of the issue is that everything about a grand jury was secret. It was a secret coming up, a secret while it was being held, and it was secret after unless it was a true bill," he said. "When the law changed, I think a lot of clerks weren't aware it was changing, and they weren't aware of what was causing that to change, the policy decisions behind it."
Access to grand jury records was further complicated by a 2019 Nebraska Supreme Court ruling. The Nebraska Attorney General's Office sought to seal the Douglas County grand jury report stemming from the death of a 29-year-old Oklahoma man who was stunned with a Taser and punched by Omaha police officers during his arrest.
The court denied the attorney general's appeal to seal that case but said judges could block future grand jury documents from release if a prosecutor could demonstrate good cause.
The decision created additional uncertainty for district court clerks, according to Jon Cannon, deputy director of the Nebraska Association of County Officials. Members urged the Legislature to adopt new regulations that would provide consistency among all 93 Nebraska counties.
“We want to make sure there’s a procedure in place that says if it’s going to be made available, here’s what you have to go through and, ultimately, it’s going to have to be signed off by the judge who heard the case,” Cannon said.
How rules may change
Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks brought a bill (LB1041) this year that would enact stricter guidelines for how grand jury information could be released with the backing of the state's county attorneys and district court clerks.
It was included in an omnibus package that advanced from the Judiciary Committee onto the floor for lawmakers’ consideration and won first-round approval before the Legislature recessed indefinitely this past week in the face of a global novel coronavirus pandemic.
Pansing Brooks' bill wouldn't allow any copies of grand jury transcripts or exhibits to be made and only allows review of those records “upon written request” in an instance where a grand jury finds “no true bill.”
If a true bill — or finding of criminal wrongdoing — is returned, prosecutors may file a protection order within five days to delay a public review of the grand jury transcripts and exhibits. If a judge approves the order, those documents would be sealed until after the criminal prosecution concludes.
Pansing Brooks said the bill could be amended further once the Legislature reconvenes to ensure it provides the guidance sought by the district courts without limiting public access to grand jury findings.
"The whole goal is creating consistency and clarity for the courts and the clerks," she said, "and make sure reporters know how to get that information."
Grand jury issues rarely end up in front of the Nebraska Supreme Court.
But in 2018, the Nebraska Attorney General appealed to the state’s highest court, asking to seal a grand jury report in the death of a mentally ill man as he was arrested because it resulted in criminal charges against two former Omaha police officers.
Zachary Bear Heels, an Oklahoma man who had schizophrenia and was bipolar, died within minutes of a confrontation June 5, 2017. Police say the 29-year-old Bear Heels was acting erratically at an Omaha convenience store and fought officers' efforts to take him into custody.
Police cruiser video showed Officer Scotty Payne using a stun gun on Bear Heels and Officer Ryan McClarty dragging Bear Heels by his hair and punching him in the face 13 times.
Both officers later were fired and ended up facing criminal charges as a result of the grand jury.
Neither was convicted. In December 2018, a jury found Payne not guilty of felony assault for using the stun gun on Bear Heels. And in March 2019, prosecutors dropped a misdemeanor assault charge against McClarty after two national law enforcement experts agreed his punches were justified because Bear Heels had freed his hand from a handcuff.
While Payne was at trial and McClarty’s case still was pending — the matter not yet moot — the Supreme Court took up the Attorney General’s appeal.
At oral arguments, Corey O'Brien, the assistant attorney general prosecuting the officers, asked the court to reverse a Douglas County judge's decision to release the grand jury transcript and exhibits because it had led to criminal prosecutions.
The outcome was a rare exception in Nebraska, where the vast majority of grand juries find no criminal wrongdoing. O'Brien said he brought the case, in part, because the two statutes passed in 2016, which make the records available for public review, "were a little unclear.”
Until there was greater clarity, he said, he felt it important to protect the integrity of the record of the two men indicted and didn’t think the Legislature had anticipated that possibility when senators passed the law.
On the other side, attorney Dan Fischer, representing the Omaha World-Herald and KETV, which had requested the information the state sought to block, said once you have a public policy of open records, then you have to read the access to records broadly and liberally and restrictions narrowly.
Fischer argued that it would be difficult to obtain such an order given that the "Legislature has made the purposeful decision to make these records public.”
In a 10-page Supreme Court decision that followed in January 2019, the court overruled O’Brien’s motion for procedural reasons and dismissed the appeal. But the court also opened the door for the district court judge to seal the grand jury records — if the right person is asking and shows good cause to do it.
The problem was the first court challenge of the 2016 law making the reports public hadn't come from a defense attorney but from an attorney for the state.
While Justice Jeffrey Funke said there was "no concrete set of facts in the record that would establish good cause to not have the information released to the media," a defendant in a pending criminal prosecution would be the most natural party to raise the issue.
He said a defendant could make the argument that releasing a transcript of the grand jury proceedings could harm his or her right to a fair trial. And, Funke said, justices saw no reason why a party in a criminal case that follows couldn’t ask a judge to order the information be withheld from release until after a trial.
Until another challenge comes along, that’s how things will stay, barring the Legislature changing the law.
A former University of South Carolina football star and his wife, stopped Wednesday morning in western Nebraska while on a cross-country trip from Las Vegas to Columbia, South Carolina, have accused the Nebraska State Patrol of racial profiling.
The state patrol said Saturday it had completed its internal investigation of the traffic stop and found no evidence of racial profiling, nor any violations of state patrol policy.
“NSP takes all complaints seriously, especially any of the gravity of racial profiling,” said Col. John Bolduc.
Marcus Lattimore’s wife, Miranda, said they were pulled over for going 80 in a 75 mph zone.
“Yes, we were speeding. But that does not warrant being taken out of our car, patted down, separated and put into two different vehicles, interrogated, accused of trafficking drugs and then we had to wait on a K-9 unit,” she posted on Twitter.
She said they were asked to step out of their vehicle because she was shaking.
Marcus Lattimore said an officer accused him of trafficking 30 pounds of cocaine and heroin, telling him: “Claim your drugs.” An hour later, they were allowed to go without receiving a speeding ticket.
“Five police officers and a K-9 unit all for going 5 miles over the limit,” Miranda Lattimore said.
Marcus Lattimore was cited for violation of the "move over law" and issued a warning for speeding. The patrol said he failed to move over when he passed another trooper conducting a different traffic stop.
Miranda Lattimore said she had been racially profiled before but described what happened near Kimball as “unspeakable.”
They were shaken up but moving on after filing a formal complaint with the state patrol, which she said "have taken this very seriously.”
The state patrol said Saturday it reached out to the Lattimores after seeing the social media posts to get more information.
Spokesman Cody Thomas said four officers and a patrol dog were involved in the stop — the trooper who pulled over the couple's Ford SUV, a sergeant and trainee who had been on a nearby traffic stop and arrived to assist, as is common practice, and the officer who arrived with the K9 unit.
Thomas said Miranda Lattimore stayed inside the SUV until the K9 unit arrived and was asked to leave so the dog could do an outside sniff. The dog did not find evidence of drugs and the car was not searched.
Bolduc said they are still in contact with the Lattimores and "welcome any feedback that may help NSP better serve Nebraska and visitors to our state.”
Thomas also pointed out that all troopers undergo anti-bias training.
Marcus Lattimore played for the South Carolina Gamecocks from 2010 to 2012 and was drafted into the NFL by the San Francisco 49ers, but never played a down because of a knee injury. He recently left a position within the Gamecocks' football program.
Concerns over COVID-19 have reached the courthouse, suspending most Lancaster County District Court civil trials for two months, limiting the number of people inside its courtrooms and putting pressure on the jail’s video-appearance capabilities.
In a pair of court orders issued this week, Judge Kevin McManaman moved to restrict visitors to the third floor of the Hall of Justice.
First, on Tuesday, he capped the number of people allowed in the courtroom to 10, including the judge, staff, lawyers, parties and witnesses. Others who want to attend must provide medical test results from the last 24 hours proving they are free of the COVID-19 (although, as of Thursday, just 56 people had been tested in Lancaster County).
But there could be some flexibility. District Court Administrator Jared Gavin said Thursday that those without test results could make a special request to enter the courtroom, which would be considered by the judge.
Then, on Wednesday, McManaman issued a second order, minimizing the transportation of detainees and inmates to the court from state, county or juvenile correctional centers.
That means that unless an in-person appearance is critical — like evidentiary hearings or certain sentencings — criminal defendants will appear via video teleconference, Gavin said.
A couple of weeks ago, he estimated, 60 inmates might visit the courts in one day. Thursday, he counted four.
McManaman’s orders follow the direction the court started moving a week ago, when Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Heavican ordered courts to stay open but devise emergency plans to limit exposure to the coronavirus.
So in Lancaster County, they’ve postponed most civil cases for 60 days — because there’s no right to a speedy trial in civil court — and few people have complained, he said.
“And on the criminal side, with any kind of speedy trial or constitutional issue, we are ensuring access to the courts.”
But that’s meant they’ve relied heavily on video appearances — prosecutors in their offices, defense attorneys in theirs, the suspects at the jail, the judges at the bench.
“It’s pretty much our new normal. We certainly did not rely on video as extensively as we are now. We are handling any new cases that statutorily doesn’t require a person, in person, to appear that way.”
They’re also realizing the limits of the Lancaster County Jail’s video capacity, and have ordered additional equipment.
The court hasn’t yet decided how it will handle any upcoming criminal trials requiring a jury, though it has some time: The next jury term doesn’t start until April 6.
Many cases have been settled by plea agreements or continued, Gavin said. And the court and the Jury Commission are developing plans to protect jurors.
“The safety of jurors is our utmost priority,” he said. “There’s no way we’re going to put a jury in a jury room.”
But this is all new ground, he said, and they’re doing what they can to balance justice with public safety.
“If we have to hold court with a court reporter at their house, and a judge at their house, and the defendant at their house, we’re going to figure it out.”