SALT LAKE CITY — Michael Wallace Tuinman had an alibi in the murder case against him, but it would take a jury years to hear it.
In his lawyer’s eyes, prosecutors in Duchesne County dragged their feet, delaying the case for roughly a year. Then in March 2020, the pandemic pushed it back again, calling off jury trials for just as long.
Tuinman got his day in court this past March, part of an initial round of experimental trials as COVID-19 continues its grip on the world. Jurors wearing face masks in Duchesne’s 8th District Court delivered the verdict on March 10, finding him not guilty of murder in the beating death of 51-year-old Sherry Melo.
Tuinman, one of six charged in her death, maintained he was not at the house where Melo was attacked and alleged another defendant implicated him as part of a plea deal.
Pandemic delays in Utah’s criminal justice system have frustrated those awaiting trial, not least those acquitted like Tuinman. Trials in most of Utah’s courthouses remain on hold.
During his commute in the fall, Tuinman’s defense attorney Bryan Sidwell recalled seeing a packed high school stadium with a bare-faced crowd cheering on a football team, “and yet you’re making people that have been in jail for three years sit without any trials.”
In an effort to clear a backlog of cases, two courthouses — in Duchesne and Salt Lake City — were first to begin holding some trials, with rapid testing and mask requirements. Courtrooms in and Ogden and Provo have since brought in juries.
Tuinman’s was one of nearly 60 cases set aside for a first round of trials in February and March, but many ended in plea deals or have trials scheduled for the coming months. One was postponed after a defense attorney tested positive for COVID-19.
Sidwell noted he and other defense attorneys have worried about being able to read jurors’ facial expressions behind face masks — and have jurors take in those of the lawyers — “but maybe that has changed now with the fact that we’ve been winning some cases.”
In neighboring Uintah County, Jeff Graybill, 60, is recovering from COVID-19 as he awaits trial in the county jail.
Graybill said he tested positive after deputies shuffled inmates from one part of the jail to the next in an outbreak, placing him with others who’d been exposed to the virus.
They didn’t require those incarcerated in the jail to wear masks, he said, but did take other steps like limiting recreation time. Graybill said he hasn’t been outside in six months and hasn’t received a vaccine.
“By the Constitution, I’m technically not guilty, but it’s sure kind of hard to feel that way when they’re playing Russian roulette with your health,” he said. “I feel like they’re just taking the Constitution, wadding it up in a ball and throwing it in the garbage.”
By March 8, he tested positive, developed a fever and felt weak enough that he was transported to a hospital for treatment and released later in the day. He wasn’t able to appear in court even over video while infected under the jail’s quarantine protocol.
Graybill is charged with DUI and isn’t expecting to be released. But Graybill said he’s speaking out in the hope the jail will adopt more stringent precautions and others don’t have to go through the same thing.
His defense attorney, Jessica Peterson, said she has at least three clients who have been brought to the hospital for treatment in the outbreak.
After getting word on March 3 about the spread of the virus in the jail, she sought either releases or temporary medical furloughs of Graybill and six other clients who weren’t yet infected, arguing that other measures like ankle monitors and drug tests were adequate.
The Uintah County Attorney’s Office has objected to Graybill’s release, and a judge has yet to rule on her motion seeking to allow him to leave the jail, at least for a time.
“We thought this was an emergency, and I was shot down from everyone that I asked,” she said.
Uintah County Attorney Jaymon Thomas opposed Graybill’s release, writing in court documents that Graybill picked up the new charges last year while a previous DUI case was pending.
“I believe most of the people in jail now have committed major crimes or there’s some kind of safety concerns in releasing them” he told the Deseret News.
Uintah County Sheriff Steve Labrum said the jail has followed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines in moving inmates if they’ve been exposed and once again after test results come.
“We’re thinking we’re on the downhill,” he said. “We had several pods that never ever did get COVID.”
Labrum said inmates received masks early in the outbreak.
“You can highly suggest it, but forcing someone to wear it is pretty difficult,” he said.
The end of the pandemic will pose its own problems. When courts reopen in full, Peterson and others expect a tidal wave of trials could pose different concerns about adequate attention to each case and the workload for lawyers.
“In the legal community, we’re trained to look for what has been done before. And there is no answer in this case, because we’ve never encountered this before,” Peterson said. “There’s no clear-cut answer, but it sure seems like defendants are getting the short end of the stick.”