After Orleans County judge tosses cases over delays, Vermont judiciary pledges fixes to allow trials

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Vermont Superior Court in Newport. Photo by Justin Trombly/VTDigger

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Vermont Superior Court in Newport. Photo by Justin Trombly/VTDigger

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Vermont Superior Court in Newport. Photo by Justin Trombly/VTDigger

The Vermont judiciary has announced plans to make fixes at the Orleans County Superior criminal courthouse in Newport to allow in-person trials after a judge there dismissed a dozen criminal cases because of a lack of speedy trials.

It’s an announcement that has the county’s top prosecutor and a defense attorney scratching their heads, wondering why the Vermont judiciary did not take the steps sooner and why it waited until a judge threw out cases to make the move.

“We have been in the midst of the pandemic for almost two almost two full years, and there really seems to be zero explanation about why this could not have been sooner,” Orleans County State’s Attorney Jennifer Barrett said late Thursday afternoon. 

Earlier Thursday, the Vermont judiciary issued a statement saying jury selection will begin Jan. 24 in criminal cases in Orleans County, with trials to begin the following week.

The move comes on the heels of recent decisions by Judge Robert Mello, presiding in Orleans County criminal court, to dismiss charges in 12 cases, citing the long delays in bringing those cases to trial.

Many courts across Vermont are now fully open and are holding jury trials after having been shut down for months because of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the Orleans County criminal court has not held jury trials since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, with judiciary officials citing a lack of proper air-moving systems inside the building as one of the main reasons.

Officials have come up with a plan to install a heating coil in an existing ventilation system at the courthouse in Newport, State Court Administrator Patricia Gabel said in the Thursday release. That will allow for the building’s heat to come from ventilated air, so jurors and other people involved in a jury trial can safely and comfortably assemble, she said. 

Installation of the new equipment is set for later this month, Gabel said.

Gabel, in response to questions from VTDigger, wrote in an email Thursday that she could not comment on individual cases and decisions by judicial officers.

“The work being done to expand the number of courthouses in which jury trials can resume has not been prompted by the outcome of individual court cases,” Gabel wrote, “but by the process established in the judiciary to balance access to justice with the need to ensure that jury trials would not create a threat to public health or the health of those who work in the courthouse.”

Gabel did say the Orleans County courthouse fix is likely to cost about $20,000.

Attorney David Sleigh has filed motions to dismiss charges against his clients in roughly 30 different cases in Orleans County that were pending before the pandemic and still have not gone to trial. 

As of Thursday, 12 of those cases had been dismissed for violations of his clients’ right to a speedy trial, he said. Among the most serious offenses dismissed was a charge of financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult, a felony. 

Sleigh said Thursday the decision to fix the Orleans County courthouse to allow in-person jury trials should have occurred much earlier. 

“This is what we’ve been asking for all along,” Sleigh said. 

The defense attorney said he did not believe the judiciary’s decision would affect nearly 20 other pending motions to dismiss charges because the delays in those cases have already occurred, violating those clients’ rights to speedy trials.

Barrett, the Orleans County state’s attorney, said Thursday afternoon she has been pushing for months for the Vermont judiciary to take action that would allow in-person jury trials in Orleans County. 

But, she said, her calls for action had been met with radio silence from the Vermont judiciary. 

Was the dismissal of the cases for lack of speedy trials what prompted the Vermont judiciary to finally take action? Barrett said she did not know if there was a direct correlation between the two, but she believed it did play some role, as did other factors, including pressure from attorneys and the community to resume in-person trials in Orleans County. 

The prosecutor said she is reviewing the cases already dismissed by the judge to determine if she would appeal those rulings. Barrett said she has already filed an appeal in the case alleging financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult.

Other appeals will be considered on a case-by-case, she said.

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