Douglas County DA voices concerns about resuming trials next month, says her office wasn’t consulted; judge disputes that claim
photo by: Journal-World file photo
Updated at 6:27 p.m. Monday
Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez on Monday criticized the district court’s decision to resume jury trials next month, saying she was not consulted on the change before the court made the announcement.
However, Chief District Court Judge James McCabria disputed that claim in an email to the Journal-World Monday afternoon. He said he met with Valdez personally earlier this month to discuss the issue.
Last week, McCabria announced the court would resume jury trials in April and planned to use two locations at the Douglas County Fairgrounds as court settings to help with social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic. He also said resuming the trials would help the court begin processing a backlog of cases that has piled up during the pandemic.
In that announcement, McCabria was quoted as saying the court had “consulted with all stakeholders.” But Valdez said Monday that the court did not consult with her office to make the decision, and her office would have voiced concerns about resuming during the pandemic and using “makeshift” court rooms at the fairgrounds where she believes security is not guaranteed.
“As District Attorney, it is my duty to protect and ensure public safety,” Valdez said in the news release. “While conducting jury trials is an important function of the criminal justice system, I do not believe that conducting jury trials is prudent during a pandemic when a large majority of the Douglas County community has not been vaccinated.
“It is also my position that jury trials should commence only at such time when they can be held in the Judicial & Law Enforcement Center where proper security is available to the parties and the public,” she added.
But McCabria told the Journal-World that he spoke to Valdez personally in December when local attorneys toured the fairground facilities. He also noted the plan to use the fairgrounds as an alternative jury trial location was approved by the Kansas Supreme Court in October.
He said the court hosted an open house at the Flory Building for members of the local bar, where they could see and provide feedback on how the courtroom, jury box, jury selection room and other things were set up at the facility for trials.
McCabria said many attorneys attended the event, including members of then District Attorney Charles Branson’s office. Additionally, Valdez was invited to the open house and McCabria said he personally spoke to her while at the building. He said she did not express any concerns about the venue.
McCabria said he then met with Valdez again earlier this month, along with Deputy District Attorneys Josh Seiden and Dave Melton, who provided comments on the matter.
“As was said to Ms. Valdez at that meeting, we appreciated her input as we were then in the process of analyzing the April jury trial dockets,” McCabria said. “Those concerns were weighed along with all of the other considerations that factor into this important decision. As the judicial officers for this district, we announced the decision we believed appropriate to balance the interests of justice. As always, any party remains fully able to express concerns in individual cases and will be fully heard on those matters.”