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Utah pauses pilot program to restart jury trials in 2 courthouses

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s court system has called off its tentative plan to hold some jury trials with boosted safety precautions in December, citing a statewide COVID-19 spike.

The decision to postpone the pilot program comes at the advice of state medical experts, Utah courts spokesman Geoffrey Fattah said Monday.

“In light of the current trend in positivity rates, which is expected to increase during the holiday season, it is likely the pilot may not begin until well after the first of the year,” the courts system added in a statement.

Judges, attorneys and other were hashing out a plan to hold the mothballed trials in Salt Lake City’s 3rd District Court and in Duchesne’s 8th District Court. They sought to use rapid testing and space jurors several feet apart in the courtrooms.

Utah is among the majority of states that have restricted trials since the onset of the pandemic. The safety measure has meant that some defendants are remaining behind bars longer than normal as the virus has made its way into county jails.

Defense attorneys and prosecutors have also raised concerns about a backlog of cases that could overwhelm the court system whenever trials ultimately resume.

In the Beehive State, a courthouse can hold trials only if local health officials confirm the infection rate has decreased or is holding steady at a level that does not threaten to overwhelm hospitals. Duchesne met the threshold and convened a jury in October, but infection rates along Utah’s urban corridor have been too high.

The Utah Judicial Council, the courts’ administrative arm, said it has been consulting with the Utah Department of Health and the University of Utah’s health care system.

“Jury trials are a cornerstone of our system of justice,” the council said in a statement. “Because of the hard work, planning and leadership of our judges and staff, we are prepared to launch jury trials as soon as we can do so safely.”