The man accused of stabbing a Bangor resident to death in a nightclub parking lot more than a year ago is one of a handful of defendants who will be tried this month when criminal jury trials resume in Penobscot, Waldo and Cumberland counties.
But the resumption of a few jury trials in three counties is not expected to make much of a dent in the staggering backlog of criminal cases pending throughout the state.
Jury trials were suspended for a second time last fall when COVID-19 infection rates began rising again. They originally were delayed in March 2020 when the court curtailed all but emergency matters because of pandemic restrictions.
The trials set for April could be delayed again if the number of people infected increases dramatically in the counties where they are scheduled, according to Justice Robert Mullen, chief judge of Maine’s superior courts.
Rayshaun Moore, 35, is charged with murder in the death of Demetrius Snow, 25, of Bangor, who died of stab wounds early on the morning of Feb. 1, 2020.
His jury trial will require the use of three rooms at the Penobscot Judicial Center to ensure social distancing. The largest courtroom will be set aside for prosecutors, defense lawyers and jurors; jury deliberations will take place in another courtroom; and family, friends and members of the public will be able to watch proceedings remotely from a conference room.
Jury trials in Belfast and Portland will be set up in a similar fashion but which cases will be tried in those courthouses had not been decided as of Friday.
All participants, including jurors, will have to wear masks.
So far, defense attorneys in Maine have failed in their attempts to have coronavirus measures declared unconstitutional.
The resumption of jury trials in the few courthouses that are large enough to allow for social distancing is not expected to chip away much at the backlog of criminal cases pending in Maine. Across the state, there were 18,157 unresolved cases as of Feb. 5, up 53 percent from the same time a year earlier.
Defendants who are unable to post bail or, like Moore, don’t qualify for bail, have been held at county jails far longer than they would have were it not for the pandemic. Those defendants are expected to have their jury trials set first.
Due to the pandemic, courts plan to summon more than double the number of people they normally do for jury duty, expecting that some jurors won’t be able to serve for pandemic-related health reasons, Mullen said. Some 350-450 people could be called to jury duty to ensure enough are willing and able to serve during the pandemic.
Courts have sent potential jurors and witnesses preliminary questionnaires about pre-existing conditions known to cause complications for those infected with COVID-19. The questionnaires also include questions about whether people are working from home and/or have children at home and learning remotely.
Because of technological upgrades that have taken place in courtrooms around the state, some witnesses may be allowed to testify remotely, but that will be at the judge’s discretion. It’s unlikely civilian witnesses will be allowed to testify remotely at Moore’s murder trial, but forensic experts might be allowed to appear remotely from the Augusta crime lab.
One major impediment to scheduling trials and clearing the criminal case backlog is the lack of judicial marshals who ask COVID-19 screening questions of every person entering a courthouse, but also must be in courtrooms whenever a judge is on the bench. Marshals also escort jurors in and out of courtrooms, remain outside the jury room during recesses and deliberations, and monitor those gathered for trials, especially during times when emotions run high, such as the reading of verdicts and the imposition of sentences.
Andrew Mead, acting chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, asked Gov. Janet Mills to fund 20 additional marshals to help clear the backlog at a cost of $1.68 million for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2022, and $1.67 million for the following fiscal year. Those funds were not included in the biennial budget the Legislature passed and Mills signed earlier this week.
Mead said he hopes the state uses some of the most recent round of federal relief funds to pay for additional marshals.
Potential jurors are set to appear at the courthouse in Waldo County on Tuesday and in Cumberland County on April 12 at staggered times to allow for social distancing. Final jury selection in Moore’s trial will be held April 23.
Jury trials are not scheduled to resume in federal courts in Portland and Bangor until summer.