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Blair County DA Wants Trials To Resume

Blair County District Attorney Peter Weeks wants to get back to work prosecuting a growing backlog of cases in his county. But jury trials are still on hold.

The Blair County Court of Common Pleas suspended jury trials for much of the pandemic, despite taking measures that would have allowed them to happen in a safer way.

“We have had a build up of cases,” Weeks said. “We have had to change the way we do things, the way crimes are investigated.”

Weeks said the suspension of jury trials in the county brought much of the justice system to a near standstill.

A growing number of cases are awaiting prosecution, thanks, in-part, to a surge in crime in the county last year.

“In Blair County especially, we saw Homicide rates skyrocket,” Weeks said.

Months into the pandemic, the courts spent more than $140,000 outfitting several courtrooms with COVID-19 safety measures and upgrading technology. About half of that money came from a grant the court received, the rest came from the CARES Act.

“Similar to what we’ve done a lot of our offices, [we have] plastic barriers between the judge and the witnesses and the attorneys, spreading out the jurors,” said Laura Burke, a Blair County commissioner.

Despite those measures in place, jury trials remained suspended for much of 2020.

“I believe we had two opportunities after March of 2020 to try cases,” Weeks said.

“There really is a significant legal impact to the rights of people who are awaiting trial,” Burke said.

The courts also suspended the speedy trial rule, so no legal matters would be dismissed.

Burke said she shares weeks’ concerns about the delays in prosecution, noting the significant costs associated with housing inmates at the Blair County Prison.

Capacity limits at the prison prompted the courts to grant bail reduction requests in early January, allowing for the release of several inmates charged with violent crimes.

Weeks said the releases present a safety risk to the community.

President Judge Elizabeth Doyle said criminal jury trials are set to resume April 5, with jury selection beginning one week before.

In the courts, Burke said the county must find a middle ground.

“It’s a balancing of risk, in terms of the safety of the people who are participating in these jury trials,” she said. “[It’s] not only the impact to the people who are accused of the crime, but also the victims, the victims’ families and the families of those people who are incarcerated.”

Doyle said jury trials have been suspended because the courts did not want to “risk the lives” of perspective jurors, as case counts have been surging in the region.

She’s confident proceedings in the spring will be safer.

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