Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series that examines the impact on criminal defendants, victims, their advocates and the criminal justice system itself of the ongoing hold on state jury trials because of the pandemic.
BENNINGTON — The woman says she still has nightmares about that night, three Decembers ago, when she thought her boyfriend would kill her. She told police he repeatedly squeezed her neck, until she almost blacked out. At one point, he apparently tried to strangle her in the bathroom, using a shower curtain rod.
Police reported finding what they suspected to be blood on the couple’s bedsheets, bathtub and shower curtain. The woman said she started bleeding when the man pushed her into shards of glass, pieces of a storm window that shattered when he shoved her against it.
She also spoke about being grabbed by her hair, thrown on the ground and punched in the face, before being kicked in her ribs.
“I still have those days where I am scared and I want to cry,” she said in an interview after the New Year. “I’ve had PTSD and quite a bit of it.” As a victim of domestic violence, she asked that her name be withheld.
The woman, now 27, said she has moved on considerably since that December 2018 night in Arlington. She is in a new relationship and has become a first-time mom. But there’s one thing keeping her tied to the past: the unresolved criminal case against her ex-boyfriend.
Troy Thompson, 25, is facing over a dozen misdemeanor and felony charges, including attempted second-degree murder. He is waiting for a jury trial — his constitutional right under the Sixth Amendment — but state jury trials have been on hold for nearly a year because of the pandemic. State court officials are hoping jury trials can resume next month, but the schedule has been a moving target.
The Vermont Supreme Court suspended jury trials on March 17, 2020, to maintain social distancing and limit the spread of the coronavirus. Such efforts to protect public health have helped Vermont achieve one of the lowest COVID-19 infection rates in the country, but they’ve also had unintended consequences for parties in criminal cases. The months or years of waiting have taken an emotional, physical and mental toll not just on defendants, but also on people who are considered victims to begin with.
There are thousands of people whose lives are currently in limbo as they wait for state jury trials to resume. In 2020 alone, based on the Vermont judiciary’s latest statistical report, around a thousand new criminal cases were filed each month.
CHILDREN STRESSED AND CONFUSED
Advocates say that child victims are getting stressed and frustrated with the constant change in the trial restart schedule. So far, court officials have changed the target restart date four times since last April.
Bikers Against Child Abuse, a motorcycle organization that aims to empower child victims of physical, sexual and emotional abuse, said the starts and stops have been tough on the young ones.
BACA’s work includes accompanying kids in court when they testify; sometimes group members stand out in their biker attire, other times they appear just like another friend or family member.
Testifying in court is often daunting for kids, but they muster the courage to do so — only to get deflated when the plans are postponed. “If you think about what they’re preparing for, they’re preparing to go into a roomful of strangers and tell them about the most horrible thing that has ever happened to them,” said the president of BACA’s Vermont chapter, a woman who goes by the biker name Irish. “Imagine the anxiety … all that buildup,” she said, “and then it gets pushed back.”
Amid this turbulence, Irish said, the children can’t even seek comfort in previously mundane activities, such as going to school and spending time with friends. Children have mostly been home during the pandemic after schools went fully or partially remote, and they’ve been told to socially distance from people outside their household.
Irish said some child victims are also confused why trials can’t just be held online. “If I can go to school over the internet, why can’t we just do this?” Irish quotes some of the children as saying.
The Vermont judiciary said it’s been looking at the experience of other states that have held trials online, such as Washington. The challenge with remote criminal trials, said Chief Superior Judge Brian Grearson, is to hold them in such a way that does not compromise defendants’ fundamental rights to due process.
Since Vermont courts began holding hearings remotely during the pandemic, some defense attorneys have argued that these online proceedings violate due process rights.
These include defendants’ right to personally confront their accusers and the right to have a public trial. Public access to remote hearings right now is by request; ordinarily, anyone can enter a courtroom to watch a non-confidential hearing.
Grearson said the judiciary is considering holding remote trials in civil cases, which don’t have the same due process issues as criminal cases.
NEW CHARGES, SAME VICTIM
Since the pandemic began, no victims have come closer to seeing their case go to trial than two women who experienced domestic violence in 2011. The man accused of attacking them, Clayton Turner, had been scheduled to go on trial at the Windham County Superior Court in December. His trial was supposed to pave the way for the resumption of jury trials statewide, including providing important insights on how trials could be conducted safely during the coronavirus outbreak.
The court said summons had gone out to around 300 potential jurors. And about a third had already been excused from the Dec. 7 draw when COVID-19 cases spiked after Halloween. The Turner trial was put on hold in November, with no new trial date given. It’s not clear how the postponement affected the victims, who had been waiting a decade for the trial; the women, now both age 36, declined an interview.
Then on Jan. 20, Turner, 38, decided to plead guilty to assault charges under a deal with the state. He was sentenced to 26 months of time served and extradited to New Hampshire, where he has pending charges, said Windham County Deputy State’s Attorney Dana Nevins.
Nevins, who prosecuted the case, said the current wait for jury trials to restart has revealed a troubling trend that affects domestic violence victims. Because pretrial inmates who aren’t facing life sentences can normally be held without bail for only 60 days, some inmates accused of felony domestic assault have been able to get out of jail since no trials are being held.
The 60-day detention period has still given victims time to plan how to keep themselves safe before their alleged attackers could be released. But, Nevins said, he has noticed an increase in the number of cases where a domestic assault defendant is released from jail on conditions and then “charged with another assault against the same victim.”
“I cannot say that this increase is related to the pandemic or the suspension of jury trials, but it certainly is a troubling trend from a victim safety standpoint,” he said.
PERSONAL PROTECTION STRATEGIES
For months, Heidi Stratton has been thinking about leaving Bennington. The 39-year-old wants to get away from an ex-boyfriend who is charged with stalking her and, in doing so, violating an abuse prevention order.
This criminal case against Bruce King, 72, has been pending in Bennington Superior Court since August. Last month, he asked to be added to the growing list of state defendants waiting to go on trial. He is free from jail on conditions, which include not to “harass” Stratton.
Despite the court order, Stratton, who asked that her name be used in this story, said King continues to follow her around and watch her from outside her apartment. She said his behavior, coupled with the months-long wait for a case resolution, has stretched her to her breaking point.
She talked about not being able to sleep or eat properly for days, losing 100 pounds in the past six months and holing up in her apartment. “I have deteriorated so bad,” she said, “it’s gotten to a point where sometimes I don’t know if I’m alive or dead.”
Family and friends are encouraging her to move away, but Stratton said doing so would show King he has beaten her. “I gotta stay in here and stand my ground with him,” she said. King’s attorney declined to comment on Stratton’s allegations.
Project Against Violent Encounters, a Bennington nonprofit group that is assisting Stratton, said it’s been helping domestic violence survivors feel safe while waiting for their alleged attackers to be tried. This involves discussing measures that would safeguard survivors not just physically but also emotionally and mentally, said Lauren Wilcox, a case manager at PAVE. For instance, some survivors reportedly install security cameras at home, carry personal alarms or take self-defenses courses. Others make friends with their neighbors, who can call the police on their behalf, while others feel safer staying in touch with the defendant and knowing what they were up to.
“I think the slowdown of judiciary processes in these unprecedented times has highlighted the importance of survivors planning for their safety outside of the criminal justice system,” Wilcox said. “Support without judgment is essential.”
LOOKING FOR RESOLUTION
State court officials are now making plans to resume jury trials on the week of March 22, through at least one criminal case in Windham County. Whether the restart will finally push through depends on the status of coronavirus infections at that time and the advice of health experts, said Chief Judge Grearson.
Once Windham County is greenlighted, more courthouses are expected to follow suit. Which ones would go next has not yet been determined. Grearson said the judiciary is still waiting for the results of airflow evaluations on courthouses, which were conducted by a separate state agency.
Right now, to help criminal cases move along while trials are on hold, Bennington County is offering mediation sessions between defense attorneys and prosecutors. These discussions, which are voluntary and closed to the public, offer the parties a chance to reach a resolution with the help of a retired judge.
Bennington County State’s Attorney Erica Marthage describes the meetings as the closest thing the state courts currently have to a jury draw — which prompts both the defense and prosecution to decide for the final time whether to settle or go to trial. The mediation, she said, allows each side to frankly discuss its current situation with a judge who won’t be presiding over the case if it does go to trial.
“I find that that’s been really helpful,” Marthage said. “It’s like a reality check for all of us. That’s kind of making it feel like a jury draw day.” Since the process was introduced in November, she said dozens of participating cases have been settled.
So far, only Bennington County has utilized this process. Rutland County is making plans to be next, Grearson said. If the mediation sessions are found to be successful over time, he said they will be expanded to other counties.
Meanwhile, the woman who thought she’d die at the hands of Troy Thompson can’t wait for his trial to start.
“I’ve finally healed to a point where I’m not afraid to take the stand,” she said. “I’m not afraid to look at him and say, ‘You tried to kill me.’” She also can’t wait for his trial to end and for this part of her life to finally be over.