Speedy justice: Another victim of COVID-19

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Justice delayed is often referred to as the time it takes to solve and try a criminal case, but now that term has a whole new meaning as courts struggle with delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

You may remember some of the serious cases that were making their way through the criminal justice system just a few weeks ago.

Barbra and James Chance await sentencing for their part in helping their son, Jared Chance, move evidence after he killed dismembered Ashley Young.

barbara and james chance mug shots 121118_1544659672601.jpg.jpg
Booking photos of Barbara Chance and James Chance, parents of convicted killer Jared Chance.

Tatiania Fusari and Seth Welch have yet to be sentenced for the horrific starvation murder of their 10-month-old daughter Mary.

seth welch
Seth Welch enters a Grand Rapids courtroom as he stands trial for the murder of his 10-month-old daughter Mary Anne.

Michael Pagel awaits a hearing after being arrested this year and charged with murder in the 2006 slaying of his wife Renee.

An undated booking photo of Michael Pagel.
An undated booking photo of Michael Pagel.

Judge Mark Trusock is the chief judge in Kent County, which is essentially closed except for a few emergency hearings and non-contact business.

“I don’t want to  put anyone in the public at risk. I don’t want put the staff at the courthouse at risk,” Trusock said Wednesday. “We’re just going to have to take this one step at a time. There’s no bench book for this. It’s not anything we can pull in from our experience and we don’t know how long this is going to go on.”

Kent County is only doing emergency hearings and proceedings that can be done with briefs and no in-court appearances will be done through at least May 15.

Probation, work crew and every other aspect of the court support is shut down, and the state prisons are not taking new tenants.

While the court searches for solutions when restrictions are lifted, Trusock said there has to come a time when the cases have to move forward, especially in cases involving children.

“Every time that gets ready for trial, that poor child goes through a traumatic experience,” Trusock said.

Muskegon courts are allowing some plea and custody sentencing proceedings to be held remotely.

“We’re trying to do as much as we can remotely so that when the doors are open, we’re not subjected to this big tidal wave of events that need to happen,” said Muskegon County Prosecutor DJ Hilson. “It requires some consent on the defendants’ part to do the electronic testifying,” Hilson said.

There are courts that are doing more with remote and video procedures. Marquette County has had a felony non-jury trial.

But there are questions about if extensive use would just create an automatic appeal on the grounds of inadequate representation and the 6th Amendment rights to confront their accusers.

Defense attorney Jeff Kortes has clients caught up in the delay, including Jordan Loomis who is awaiting his day in court accused of the murder of James Earl Robinson in November.

Jordan Loomis
A Dec. 1, 2019, photo of Jordan Loomis from the Kent County Correctional Facility.

While a trial by Zoom might speed things up, Kortes would not advise his clients to do that.

“There are so many dynamics going on at trial that you can only make a connection with jurors with witnesses if you’re right there in the present,” Kortes said. “I don’t see the future holding Zoom trials as anything that would be possible.”

But he does hope that the courts take some lessons from this hard time about things can be done with technology, which courts are traditionally reluctant to adopt.

“I would hope that when we come through this at the other end, the courts are going to see that there are much more efficient processes that can be put in place,” Kortes said.

Some criminal cases in West Michigan that have been delayed include:

  • Barbara and James Chance: Charged with accessory to murder and perjury. A sentencing date has not been set.
  • Tatiana Fusari and Seth Welch: Charged with child abuse and murder. A sentencing date has not been set.
  • Aaron Scott and Jamilah Board: Charged with illegally selling or distributing liquor without a license at Margarita Madness 5K in Grand Rapids. Jury trial is set for May 12.
  • Byron Morris: Charged with kidnapping, criminal sexual conduct and unarmed robbery. Jury trial is set for June 22.
  • Michael Pagel: Charged with first-degree premeditated murder. A hearing is set for June 2.
  • Jason McCann: Charged with leaving the scene of a deadly crash and reckless driving causing death. Jury trial is set for June 8.
  • Javan Beard: Charged with operating while intoxicated causing death and one count of operating without a license. Jury trial set for July.
  • Lamont Plair: Charged with second-degree murder. A hearing has not been scheduled.
  • Denny McNees: Charged with assault with intent to commit murder and first-degree home invasion. A hearing has not been scheduled.
  • William Jones: Facing several charges in a home invasion and murder. A preliminary hearing is set for May 13.
  • Cameron Toppen: Charged with first-degree murder and second-degree murder. Sentencing is scheduled for May 18.
  • Michelle Koets: Charged with obtaining a controlled substance by false representation. Sentencing set for May 6.

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