With COVID-19 unchecked in jails, courts should not reopen, says LA attorney

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LA County courts have been closed due to COVID-19 and protests over the killing of George Floyd. Cases are piling up, and hearings might resume later this month. But some say reopening courts now is too soon. Credit: Pixabay.

Nearly 3,000 people have been arrested in LA County since Friday, tied to demonstrations against the police killing of George Floyd. But nearly all of the county’s courtrooms have been closed since March because of COVID-19.

That means a backlog of thousands of cases. 

The courts plan to gradually resume hearings later this month, but some people think that’s too soon. 

“Going to work should not be a death sentence,” says Joel Koury, a criminal defense attorney and former public defender based in Santa Monica. “Routine hearings pose a substantial risk to everyone involved: the lawyers, the inmates, their family, the family of the court staff, the janitor that cleans that courtroom.”

He says public defenders need to go into jails to meet with their clients, and many jails have become hotspots for COVID-19.

“It's personal for me,” says Koury. “A close friend of mine, Sal Salgado, who was a public defender, just passed away last week of COVID. We don't know exactly how he contracted it, but it's pretty reasonable to assume that he contracted it at work.”

Koury doesn’t believe a jury trial can be conducted fairly until a vaccine is widely disseminated.

“How do you assess a person's credibility if they're wearing a mask?” he says. “How can you observe the demeanor and character of a witness if you're sitting 30 feet away from him behind plexiglass, or worse, on Zoom? I don't know how they're going to do that.”