In person-trials will resume on Monday in Flagler County and the rest of the Seventh Judicial Circuit (including St. Johns, Volusia and Putnam) starting Monday, Chief Judge Raul Zambrano announced.
Most court functions have been continuing through hybrid arrangements, with judges in their courtrooms and defendants and lawyers appearing either in person or from remote locations. But with a few exceptions last fall, jury trials had been suspended in mid-March and again since late December as coronavirus case loads rose in two successive waves.
Juries may be made up of six or 12 people, but getting to those numbers is an extensive process that requires calling in jury pools of up to 150 citizens at a time. Pools are gathered in the courthouse’s jury assembly room on the first floor, a room not designed for social distancing with that many people. Jury pools in groups of 50 then appear in courtrooms before the judge, defense and prosecution lawyers, where jury selection is conducted, often over several hours. Again, the courtrooms are not designed for socially distancing that many potential jurors.
Resumption of trials means that pools will be assembled in smaller numbers, and only half the usual number of people will be brought into the courtroom for jury selection, which may end up doubling the time it takes to select some juries. On the other hand, many cases have been idled for months, their defendants awaiting their day in court. Jury boxes will be set up as they were last fall, with jurists distanced from each other. Family of defendants and members of the public will be barred from attending in person, to minimize the number of people in each room, but will have access to the proceedings through YouTube.
Pre-trials, pleas, sentencings and the like have not been as affected since they draw fewer people, although what usually amounts to the cattle-call like parade of lawyers and defendants at pre-trials, when dozens of cases are handled in succession, will continue to be conducted mostly from remote locations: the defendants at their home, if they have bonded out, or from the county jail, the lawyers from their offices, and the judges from their courtrooms.
Despite the last year’s restrictions, several high-profile criminal cases have been brought to conclusion. Among them: the plea and sentencing of Dorothy Singer to 32 years in prison on a first-degree murder conviction (she had killed her husband in West Flagler), after an appeals court had ordered a new trial; the plea and sentencing to 30 years in prison of Joseph Colon, accused of first degree murder in the heroin-overdose death of Savannah Deangelis in 2017; the plea and sentencing to 50 years in prison of Michael Shimmel in the first-degree murder of his mother in 2017; the plea and sentencing of Tammy Almond, to five years in prison, for the manslaughter death of her boyfriend Darrell Wilson in Bunnell in 2018; the rejection of leniency in the life sentence of Jonathan Canales, who shot his girlfriend in the neck in the Mondex in 2014 (she survived); and the plea and sentencing to life of Brian Wirth, the father of three who’d raped his children for years.
The pandemic did not stop the Fifth District Court of Appeals from continuing its work, upholding in the main such felony convictions as that of former Supervisor of Elections Kimberly Weeks, who was then re-sentenced to a month in jail, and ordering a new trial in the case of Joseph Bova, the troubled man accused of murdering Zuheili Roman Rosado at the Palm Coast Mobil Mart on State Road 100 in February 2013.
But other trials were put on hold, including that of Keith Johansen, who faces a first-degree murder charge in the death of Brandi Celenza. That trial was all but set to go last March. So was the case of Benjamin Allen, who was 16 when he was charged as an adult in the first-degree murder of 17-year-old Elijah Rizvan in Palm Coast, and who has turned down plea offers so far. His docket sounding–the last step before trial–is set for May 4.
There’s also the case of Cornelius Baker, who had been convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death, but whose case has entered a twilight zone of uncertainty since a pair of contradictory higher court rulings about whether he may or may not be re-sentenced: his original sentence followed a recommendation for death by a jury that was not unanimous. A Florida Supreme Court order invalidated that sentence, requiring a unanimous jury, only for a more recent Supreme Court decision to invalidate the earlier ruling. Baker’s fate has been dangling since. He is due for a status hearing, by Zoom, on May 25.