The trial of a man accused of raping a woman in East Glenville last year has been indefinitely delayed as part of a statewide postponement of new jury trials, Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney said Tuesday.
Jonathon Stewart, a Saratoga Springs man who allegedly raped a woman in a vehicle driven to a wooded area in East Glenville in 2019, was scheduled to stand trial in Schenectady County in the coming weeks, Carney said. The case would have been just the second case tried in the county since the initial COVID-19 shutdowns last March.
The county, about a month ago, moved forward with its first trial since the spring closure, Carney said, requiring face masks and distancing jurors in the courtroom while completing an assault trial with a conviction.
But all other cases prepared to go to trial soon will have to wait after state court officials last week announced all new jury trials would be indefinitely delayed in the face of rising COVID-19 cases across the state.
“We will not put anyone’s health or well-being at risk, and we will do everything in our power to help prevent further spread and resurgence of COVID-19,” state Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said in a video message posted to the state court website.
The state decision postpones the start of any new jury trials, allowing trials currently in progress to conclude. While sitting grand juries will still be allowed to meet and approve indictments, new grand juries cannot be empaneled until further notice, giving prosecutors a limited window of time to get indictments approved. Pre-trial hearings and motions and other court work will continue, relying on improvements to virtual systems courts have made since the spring.
“We had several [cases] in the pipeline for before the end of the year,” Carney said of other trials in the county. “All of which are on hold.”
Carney said his office would typically prosecute around 25 jury trials in a year; this year he expects to finish just three trials. He said there is still plenty of work to do, even with trials on hold, but that his office will have to shift attention away from the final steps of trial preparation to other matters. Going forward, county prosecutors will have to hold off on things like final witness preparation until an actual trial date is set. Carney said that defendants have a constitutional right to a speedy trial but that delays in trials can also work against prosecutors.
“It usually advantages a defendant if a case is aged,” Carney said. “It may be harder to find witnesses over time, memories can dim, so generally it is a disadvantage.”
Carney’s office has two separate grand juries active and meeting twice a week to hear evidence and consider possible indictments, the formal step of bringing criminal charges against a defendant, he said. But those grand juries are slated to conclude in early January, after which the county cannot establish a new grand jury.
“We intend to redouble those efforts to get as many cases in as we can before there are no more grand juries,” Carney said of working to get indictments in the coming weeks.
In Schoharie County, trials never resumed since the spring, but District Attorney Susan Mallery on Tuesday said she was hopeful with how other counties were managing in-person trials and looking forward to resuming prosecutions in Schoharie County.
Mallery said she felt confident in the protocols in place to minimize contacts and potential exposure.
“I’m disappointed because I do feel the systems in place were working,” she said of the delay. “We haven’t had permission to set our trials yet, so we have them waiting.”
Mallery, who would not say how many trials awaited a go-ahead, also highlighted the challenges presented by budget cuts that will eliminate about 25 percent of the attorney hours in her office. The loss of manpower will hurt once trials are allowed to move forward. She also said the delays can have an impact on the victims awaiting their day in court.
“It’s very problematic for the victims who have to wait for justice to be served,” she said. “It’s stressful for the families and the victims themselves.”