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Jury trials suspended again due to virus surge

Hawaii Chief Justice Mark E. Recktenwald on Thursday issued an order once again postponing the start of jury trials in Hawaii’s courts until after Feb. 28.

The order doesn’t affect nonjury trials. In addition, any jury trial currently underway “may continue at the discretion of the presiding judge,” the document states.

Recktenwald’s order is in response to the current spike in COVID-19 spurred by the highly contagious omicron variant of the novel coronavirus. The Department of Health reported 1,511 new COVID-19 cases statewide on Thursday, with 66 of those and two new deaths reported in Hawaii County.

Jury trials have twice previously been postponed during the pandemic, most recently in response to a surge in early August of cases and hospitalizations associated with the delta variant. Resumption of jury trials were allowed starting Nov. 16.

“We anticipate there’s going to be a backlog in what’s happening right now when we resume on Feb. 28,” Third Circuit Chief Judge Robert D.S. Kim said.

Kim managed to preside over two completed jury trials in the five weeks between the Nov. 16 resumption of jury trials and Recktenwald’s order calling a halt to the start of new trials.

In the first, 21-year-old Zeth Browder was found guilty on Dec. 15 of sexually assaulting an elderly woman camping at Spencer Beach Park on June 15, 2019. He’s scheduled to be sentenced by Kim on Feb. 25.

And in the second, 40-year-old Kapena Kuahiwinui was found guilty Thursday of habitual DUI. He’s slated for sentencing by Kim on March 4.

Previous orders by Recktenwald also curtailed the convening of grand juries in all of the state’s judicial circuits.

Grand juries, like jury trials, were allowed to resume operations on Nov. 16, and Recktenwald’s Thursday order didn’t curtail grand juries, although grand juries are selected yearly and each panel either has concluded or is set to conclude its service for 2021.

According to Kim, Third Circuit grand jury selection for 2022 is scheduled to take place Jan. 6-7 in Hilo and Kailua-Kona.

“We still anticipate that’s going to go, but if the numbers spike, I can pull it at any time, right up to the day before,” Kim said. “I have no hesitation to stay the grand jury if I see any indications that it would be not prudent or it would affect the safety of anybody showing up in court.”
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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