District Judge Darren B. Simpson | EastIdahoNews.com file photo
IDAHO FALLS — For the first time in more than a year, jury trials can be held in every eastern Idaho county.
The Idaho Supreme Court issued an emergency order at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 limiting court proceedings across the state. Since then, only a handful of jury trials have been held in the 7th Judicial District, which includes Bingham, Bonneville, Butte, Clark, Custer, Fremont, Jefferson, Lemhi, Madison and Teton counties.
“Since March of 2020, the 7th District held two jury trials in late summer, and that’s it,” Trial Court Administrator Tammie Whyte says. “We were only able to get two in, and then the COVID numbers spiked.”
The Idaho Supreme Court issued new guidelines in February stating trials can resume if a county has 25 or fewer active COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people. If a county has a seven-day average of active COVID-19 cases between 14 and 25 per 100,000 people, and the numbers are trending upward over the previous seven days, a trial cannot commence.
“As of April 26 (Monday), all of our counties are a go. People have been getting summonses and completing their COVID questionnaires. We have jurors ready to go in all of our counties that will allow trials to proceed safely,” Whyte says.
Trials have also commenced in the 6th Judicial District, which comprises Bannock, Bear Lake, Caribou, Franklin, Oneida and Power counties.
“We have had two magistrate jury trials and two district jury trials,” Trial Court Administrator Kerry Hong tells EastIdahoNews.com. “We have another district jury trial starting tomorrow and on Monday.”
With juries now commencing, the Idaho Supreme Court has said trials shall be held in the following order of priority:
Criminal cases in which defendants are incarcerated
Masks are required in all Idaho courthouses, and jurors are socially distanced inside courtrooms.
What is a grand jury?
There are two juries in the criminal justice system: a grand jury and a trial jury. Some cases are delayed because grand juries have not been able to meet.
Grand juries are rarely used in eastern Idaho. When a prosecutor wishes to have one convened, jurors are summoned to the courthouse on a specific date and time. A judge presides over the panel of jurors, and frequently there are no attorneys except for the prosecutor, who displays evidence and calls witnesses.
“A grand jury’s focus is to determine what charges are levied against an individual after determining there is probable cause that a crime was probably committed, and the defendant probably committed it,” Bonneville County Prosecuting Attorney Daniel Clark says. “A grand jury is composed of 16 members, and for someone to be indicted by a grand jury, 12 members must agree.”
The jurors can view almost any kind of evidence they want and ask questions of witnesses. Grand jury proceedings are held in strict confidence and are closed to the public so witnesses can speak freely and allow the suspect to be protected if charges are not filed.
“The prosecutor puts on evidence to the grand jury but, in the purest form, the grand jury acts as a fact-finder and asks questions of witnesses,” Clark says. “A grand jury is beneficial in some ways as the hearings are sealed from the public, and sensitive victims, including children, are in a much more controlled environment when they testify.”
If the grand jury decides to indict, the suspect is charged, and the case advances directly to the district court for a trial. If the grand jury does not issue indictments, the prosecutor can still charge a suspect, but the case will begin in magistrate court, where a preliminary hearing will be held. At the hearing, a judge will decide whether enough evidence exists to show the defendant likely committed the crime. If it does, the case advances to district court for trial.
What is a trial jury?
Trial juries are familiar to most people as they are open to the public and sometimes televised. The jury’s job is to render a verdict of guilt or innocence. In Idaho, a trial jury has 12 jurors for felony crimes and six for misdemeanors. Members serve the full length of the trial, which could last a few days, several weeks or even months.
Unlike a grand jury, a trial jury usually has no say in what evidence it gets to see. Evidence in trials is chosen by each party’s attorney, and jurors rarely have the opportunity to ask questions. Trial juries are much more formal than grand juries. Once the defendant and prosecutor give their closing statements, the jurors convene to determine a verdict.
“A trial jury’s vote must be unanimous, and to convict a defendant, the proof must be beyond a reasonable doubt – the highest standard in the legal system,” Clark says.
Defendants sometimes reach a plea agreement with prosecutors and avoid a jury trial by admitting to their crimes. They could receive a less severe sentence or have some of their charges dropped by pleading guilty.
For more information about the court system click here.
A previous version of this article misstated the number of people who sit on a grand jury. EastIdahoNews.com apologies for the error.
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