Delayed Justice: Mountain West Court Backlogs Leave Defendants In Limbo
Christopher Gauntlett was incarcerated at the Washoe County Detention Facility in Nevada for 525 days, waiting for his trial.
“A lot of stuff happens in there that’s not right, but there was nothing I could do about it, so I had to stay in there,” he said. “It hurts.”
Delays came from pandemic lockdowns, but also when a witness got COVID-19. They kept telling Gauntlett he’d go to court soon, and it kept getting pushed back.
“It was kind of miserable, you know?” he said. “A lot of stress, a lot of pain.”
At the same time, he said COVID-19 was all around him.
“They actually moved me out of a cell that was infected and into another cell that was infected,” he said. “So somebody had tested positive in that cell. They moved me into the room as soon as the guy left.”
He said people tried to get him to take a plea deal, but he refused and fought five charges that included domestic battery and child abuse or neglect. He was arrested Nov. 9, 2019, and on April 16 this year, he was found not guilty on all counts.
“I stuck to my faith,” he said. “Just waited it out, and went to trial – and won.”
But even after release, Gauntlett’s life didn’t go back to normal. He no longer had a job or a home in Nevada. The night of his release, his legs were in such bad shape after his long incarceration, he collapsed.
“When I first came out, my first 20 steps, all the nerves and all the tingling sensation in your leg, they started acting up. I felt like I was itching a lot,” he said. “And when I walked half a mile ... my legs locked up on me.”
He made his way to a homeless shelter, where he stayed for a few days until he could catch a bus to be with his family in Florida. That’s where he is now.
Gauntlett’s case likely isn’t unique.
“I think there's probably a Chris Gauntlett in every jurisdiction throughout the country right now,” said John Arrascada, the Washoe County public defender in Reno, Nev.
Arrascada says the pandemic has been, and will continue to be, a massive strain on the court system. His jurisdiction usually sees 25 to 30 trials a year. As of late April, he said there were 42 scheduled this year.
But Arrascada believes courts did work hard to keep things moving. He was on a committee looking into safely resuming jury trials.
“And we actually were able to have three jury trials during the month of October of 2020. But then the surges hit,” he said.
And then things shut down again there until April. But that wasn’t necessarily the case elsewhere in the Mountain West.
Trial delays varied depending on the state, county or even courtroom — some for days or weeks, others for months. That means some areas have a long court backlog, and others don’t.
In Idaho, state officials say the number of pending criminal cases increased by 22% from January 2020 to January 2021.
Colorado’s judiciary reported between four and five times the number of criminal jury trials scheduled this year than usual.
And New Mexico is facing its own unique issues with backlogs in immigration courts and not enough people showing up to serve as jurors in certain areas.
Montana, meanwhile, doesn’t even know the extent of its backlog.
“Well, we definitely have a backlog. There isn't really an agreed upon way to measure that, which has been frustrating,” said Brian Smith, a Montana public defender's office administrator.
With all different sizes of jurisdictions looking at this in different ways, it’s really challenging to agree on a metric, Smith said. Some don’t want to admit a backlog, while others might benefit from inflated numbers. And some prosecutors even told him they’re waiting to file cases, which is nearly impossible to measure.
But not having objective, agreed-upon backlog data makes it hard to ask for resources.
“I don't have a good solution,” he said. “The problem, though, is there and we need resources. And my fear is because we can't measure it, we're not going to allocate the resources.”
But one state in the Mountain West is different from the rest: Wyoming doesn’t seem to have much of a backlog at all.
“I think we're doing pretty well compared to what I hear about other states,” said Wyoming Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Davis.
Davis points to a few reasons for that, including local court flexibility. Unlike some other courts in the region, Wyoming was able to keep court processes moving. Even if they couldn’t hold jury trials for a few months, there was never a state-wide shutdown.
And then there’s Wyoming’s size.
“They had 3,700 judges in Texas and we've got 53 from the circuit court through the Supreme Court,” Davis said. “So your ability to communicate and manage things is much more immediate and personal and direct.”
Wyoming also had good timing: When the pandemic hit, the state had just about finished a massive, multi-year project getting video systems and software up and running in courtrooms. And that made it possible to do more work remotely.
Of course, that doesn’t guarantee Wyoming will avoid a backlog going forward. The judiciary there is facing budget cuts as the state grapples with an economic crisis. Big cuts would mean fewer judges and staff. And that could eventually mean a longer wait for your day in court.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.