Coronavirus

McHenry County court suspends trials amid COVID-19 concerns

On just about any typical morning, the parking lot at the McHenry County Courthouse would be full, but with social distancing caused by the coronavirus, the parking lot is less than halfway occupied just after opening March 16 in Woodstock.
On just about any typical morning, the parking lot at the McHenry County Courthouse would be full, but with social distancing caused by the coronavirus, the parking lot is less than halfway occupied just after opening March 16 in Woodstock.

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Amid concerns surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak, all McHenry County cases scheduled for trial through May 1 will be continued, according to an order signed Friday by 22nd Judicial Circuit Court Chief Judge James Cowlin.

In the weeks since the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in McHenry County, officials at the courthouse increasingly limited access to the Woodstock building in an effort to limit the spread of the disease.

For weeks, court administration vowed to offer essential services, including speedy trial demands. On Friday, however, Cowlin signed an administrative order calling for the continuance of all trials scheduled through May 1.

The order cited a similar March 20 Illinois Supreme Court order that granted chief judges the authority to continue trials for the next 60 days and until further notice.

In the case of criminal proceedings, any delay resulting from what the state’s Supreme Court called an “emergency continuance order” will not count against the speedy trial clock for both the state and the defense, the order stated.

Other surrounding counties, including Kane, Kendall and DeKalb, also have heeded the Illinois Supreme Court’s order and suspended upcoming trials.

In Illinois, prosecutors have 120 days to bring a case to trial once a defendant in custody invokes his or her right to a speedy trial. That window extends to 160 days for defendants who are out on bond. Typically, delays caused by the defense render the speedy trial requirements null. On the other hand, if prosecutors can’t meet the speedy trial deadline, charges against the defendant must be dropped.

Some, including Woodstock attorney Ray Flavin, have questioned the Illinois Supreme Court’s authority to bring the speedy trial clock to a halt.

“It’s the defendant’s right under the law to receive a speedy trial,” Flavin said. “I don’t believe the court can say that rule doesn’t apply anymore. They’re not the Legislature.”

The decision to delay trials in McHenry County came after days of consideration, court administration has said.

Friday’s order attributed the continuances to the protection of “judges, staff, potential jurors, case parties, other judicial partners and the general public from the spread of COVID-19.”

The court’s concern, Flavin said, is that the typical jury selection process at the start of a trial would risk exposure to the entire jury pool. But without an explicit emergency exception from the Legislature, Flavin believes prosecutors are obligated to drop charges if they can’t meet speedy trial deadlines, he said.

“The appropriate response is if you can’t try people and there’s a speedy trial demand, then you should dismiss those charges and release them from jail,” Flavin said.

McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally has said his office was prepared to move forward with previously scheduled trials and would look to the chief judge for direction.

Although the state Supreme Court order could result in a slew of appeals, those requests might end up in the hands of the very people who issued the order.

“I wouldn’t be super surprised if the Supreme Court says, ‘That was an emergency, sorry about that,’ ” Flavin said.

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