NewsLEX 18 In-Depth


How COVID court delays impact victims

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Posted at 6:53 PM, Sep 01, 2021

LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — As the pandemic continues to cause court delays, the impact of the waiting game takes a toll on victim's families.

Latoya Sturgis' brother Adrian Sturgis was murdered two years ago and she's waiting for justice.

"We got the person who did it, so we knew. But we thought it was going to be open and closed," said Latoya.

22-year-old old Mykel Smith was arrested for shooting Adrian and charged with murder in 2019.

A trial was set, but then the pandemic happened and slowed everything down.

"With COVID, we knew that it was going to take a little bit of time but not this much time," said LaToya. "It's at a standstill. We have no trial date. It's just a waiting game."

There are a lot of people like her- waiting. In June the county attorney's office told local news, Fayette County had a backlog of about 144 cases set for trial.

Early in the pandemic, most in-person criminal dockets were canceled, including criminal and civil trials.

Looking at the court dockets, judges and prosecutors will be busy. In Fayette County, there are at least seven trials each week through October.

Fayette County district and circuit clerk Vincent Riggs says the process is going slow but wouldn't call it a backlog.

"I don't think we necessarily have a backlog as much as we tried to kind of dig out from, you know, and keep things moving along a little bit. Where things slowed down tremendously," said Riggs.

Chief Justice Kimberly Bunnell of Fayette County's Circuit court says some courts closed entirely due to restrictions, but their circuit and district courts never did.

Bunnell says that made a huge difference when it comes to the number of cases and trials on their plate now that most in person operations are back.

"There were some jurisdictions around the state that couldn't have a grand jury for almost a year. And so we were able to keep going forward," said Bunnell.

Some hearings and conferences were easy to do over zoom, while others were not.

"We had to constantly ask, especially our criminal defendants, are you okay with us proceeding electronically," said Bunnell.

Many state and local courts have seen case backlogs increase during the pandemic.

According to a recent Reuters report released this the average case backlog for state and local courts across the United States increased by about one-third.

While Fayette County wouldn't consider the slowdowns they're seeing a backlog, several surrounding counties would.

We called Scott, Clark, Bourbon, Jessamine, and Woodford Counties and they all said they're seeing a backlog of some sort-mainly with jury trials.

We looked at data from the state court database that showed the number of cases by year. There was a clear difference in the number of cases the courts were able to close pre-pandemic.

Latoya is the face of what the delays are doing to families just waiting for their time.

"Just don't have no peace," said Latoya. "It's stressful. Sometimes I can't sleep. I want to hear what happened; I want to know why it happened."

She's hoping a plea isn't negotiated so that she gets those answers in court when a date is finally set.

There's a saying in the courts that justice delayed is still justice served but for Latoya, that doesn't make it hurt any less.