Indiana County’s top prosecutor is seeing an end to the monthslong hold on jury trials in the common pleas court.
The plan to bring stagnant cases to adjudication calls for holding jury selection at the spacious Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where pools of 100 or more people could be safely gathered and socially distanced while attorneys choose panels of 12 to decide the fate of their peers in criminal cases.
District Attorney Robert Manzi told the Indiana County board of commissioners Wednesday that the trial schedule could ramp up in early August.
And it won’t be a one-week crush to catch up on lost time. Trials could go on week after week after week until the backlog is erased, Manzi told the Gazette.
The added expenses of renting the KCAC for jury selection and assigning untold extra sheriff’s deputies for security during the process would put pressure on the court system budget.
But those costs, Manzi told the commissioners, could be reimbursed if the county wins a grant from the state’s Coronavirus Emergency Supplemental Fund that he said is within reach.
The commissioners authorized Manzi to file necessary paperwork to the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency in quest of more than $75,666 that the DA said the county is eligible to receive.
Manzi told the Gazette that, if awarded, a lot of the money would pay for his office’s unexpected technology requirements and basic needs for hand sanitizer and the like to protect staff workers, attorneys, witnesses, defendants and others involved in the justice system from the COVID-19 virus.
“It’s going to address costs that came up because of the pandemic that would assist the entire criminal justice
system to move forward,” Manzi said.
Technology would dominate the unexpected needs:
• Additional computers, webcams and digital recording equipment for the DA office staff to work online
• Projectors and screens to display information for jurors during the selection process at the KCAC
• More projection equipment to help jurors see and hear what they need to know during trials in the courtrooms, where they will be spread out to meet social distancing standards
• In fairness, the same stock of computer technology for the public defender’s office, “who represent a great amount of people who are accused of crimes, and help them with technology so they are better able to do their work,” Manzi said
• Additional sanitization services, in addition to routine cleaning, to protect child crime victims at the Care Center of Indiana County and domestic abuse victims sheltered at Alice Paul House
As for the details of picking juries at KCAC, the logistics still are being worked out, Manzi said.
“Obviously we’re bringing a lot of people in, and we want to make sure that people are distanced from each other,” he said. “We have security concerns, so the sheriff’s office — that normally has plans in place for the courtrooms — will have different plans over there, and as of right now I know they are working on it.”
Like court systems across the nation, the Indiana County Common Pleas Court has accumulated a backlog of unsettled cases since the last one went to a jury in February, Manzi said.
And though there’s been a five-month delay, orders by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and in turn by Indiana County Judge William Martin suspended legal system rules including the right to a “speedy trial.”
“The reality is that that does not mean people are going to be getting special deals just because we happen to have a lot of cases,” Manzi said. “My team is ready to try cases, and I know we are going to be doing them back to back for a long period of time. That’s our job, we know what needs to be done, and we’re going to be ready to do it.”
In other business Wednesday, the commissioners:
• Authorized Josh Krug of the Indiana County Office of Planning and Development to seek a grant of $16,500 from the Pennsylvania WalkWorks Program.
The program and grant fund are sanctioned by the Pennsylvania Department of Health through the Physical Activity and Nutrition Grant, and the Preventive Health and Health Services Block Grant from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
If awarded, the cash would go toward development of plans and policies for establishing “activity-friendly” routes for hikers and bikers to connect to “everyday destinations” in Indiana County.
“In September 2012, Indiana County adopted the (WalkWorks) plan, and more people are biking and walking more often,” Krug said. “The Office of Planning and Development intends to update the biking and walking plan with the new Indiana County Active Transportation Plan Update.”
No local match would be required to accept the grant, Krug said.
• Approved a contract with accounting firm Zelenkofske Axelrod LLC, of Ross Township, Allegheny County, to audit the use of almost $7.6 million being awarded to the county from the CARES Act for coronavirus pandemic relief.
“Z&A are the county’s external auditors who perform our single audit, and we reached out to them concerning the CARES Act funding received by the county,” said Byron Stauffer, executive director of the county planning office.
The accountants would provide technical assistance and advice in relation to policies, procedures, accountability and monitoring of the expenditures of the CARES Act funding through Dec. 31, Stauffer said.
Zelenkofske Axelrod would charge the county “standard hourly rates, market rates,” according to Stauffer, and would bill the county each month for hours worked as needed, at no cost to county taxpayers.
“The good news is there is a line item in the grant funds from which the county would pay for the accounting services,” he said.
• Approved changes to a security contract between the commissioners and the sheriff’s office that governs protection provided to the Domestic Relations Section offices along Indian Springs Road in White Township. The sheriff now assigns three deputies to the building, where DRS shares security with another county tenant, Indiana County Children and Youth Services, officials said. The net impact on costs was not specified.