Illinois' speedy trial law to be reinstated after pandemic suspension

CHICAGO (WLS) -- The pandemic has rocked metro Chicago's court system. When COVID struck 18 months ago, the state's speedy trial law was suspended. It mandates prosecutors bring defendants to trial within four months if they are behind bars. For thousands of people, justice has been delayed, even though courts pivoted and some proceedings were moved to Zoom. Illinois' speedy trial law will be reinstated Friday, but it will take a long time to catch up.

"I'm just back and forth, back and forth. I want it over," Derrick Coenic, who has a court case in Cook County, told the I-Team.

"Man, I've been going through this case for three years? A simple case for three years," said Coenic.

Technical difficulties, social distancing issues and the Delta variant have made it tough for the criminal justice system to get back to a pre-COVID pace.

An I-Team data analysis shows Cook County courts have been handling thousands of fewer cases since COVID began.

There were 5,000 fewer cases the first six months of this year and last year compared with the same period in 2019.

Jury trials are happening at all Cook County courthouses in both criminal and civil cases, but not yet at pre-pandemic levels.

"Many cases have been delayed that were supposed to be tried last year or would have been coming up for trial this year. Some of them have settled, but some of them are probably... maybe another six months or another year," said plaintiff's attorney, Mirella Capellupo Siwik.

Every suburban county has seen at least one multi-defendant jury trial in the past two months, according to the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association. DuPage County isn't quite back to full capacity, but has four courtrooms that were adapted to handle jury trials during the pandemic.

Chief Judge Kenneth Popejoy says some adjustments made after COVID hit will be permanent.

"Zoom is here, Zoom is always going to be here. We're always going to do this. And when you think about it, it really works for the efficiency of the legal community," said Chief Judge Kenneth Popejoy of the 18th Judicial Circuit Court in DuPage County.

"It's certainly opened up more time to focus on other things that are probably a little more important to the case," said Capellupo Siwik.

"In terms of criminal defendants. They have a right to be in court, and to confront their accuser. However, most defendants... have no problem appearing by Zoom. It does not interfere with them going to work," said criminal defense attorney Tony Thedford.

Another Chicago defense attorney, Darryl Goldberg, agrees Zoom can be convenient but he says it doesn't work for more complicated hearings, such as sentencings.

"I just think if prison is on the table at all, a judge ought to look you in the eye before they make that call," said Goldberg.

After an 18-month suspension, Illinois Supreme Court justices have ordered the speedy trial law be reinstated. For those who want a quick trial date, the court will have to give them one within 120 days if they are behind bars. If they are free on bond, it's 160 days. Otherwise their case will be dismissed.

"We oftentimes forget that you are innocent until proven guilty. And yet some of these people are in jail waiting for their day in court," said Chief Judge Popejoy.

Attorneys told the I-Team preparing for trial with clients via video isn't always ideal.

"Multiple clients have voiced their concerns to me that they don't think it's private," said Goldberg.

"I think clients feel better when they see me, I feel better when I see my clients," said Thedford.

With the state's speedy trial law being reinstated Friday, this will be another scheduling challenge for an already taxed criminal justice system.
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