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Pinal Courthouse Cleaning

Pinal County Superior Court Security Officer Brandon Byers disinfects a front door handle Wednesday as part of the court’s coronavirus prevention efforts at the courthouse.

FLORENCE — The wheels of justice are beginning to grind to a halt due to the coronavirus public health emergency.

Wednesday morning, numerous Pinal County jail inmates, who have pending cases in Superior Court, did not appear before Judge Delia Neal even if they were next door in the holding room.

“I am being liberal about waiving clients’ appearance this morning. I’m also being liberal about continuances,” Neal told defense attorneys Wednesday morning in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Neal made it perfectly clear to attorneys and defendants about the uncertainty the future holds for the criminal justice system.

While many defense attorneys waived their clients’ appearances Wednesday, a few did bring them into the courtroom.

Still most cases were simply continued down the road Wednesday.

Defense attorney Morgan Alexander said the public health emergency is a tragedy.

“I don’t think the response has been as aggressive and as competent as it should have been. We lost a lot of time initially that could have been better utilized,” Alexander said in an interview with PinalCentral.

Wednesday, Alexander asked for continuances in all of the cases he was handling before the Superior Court and waived his clients’ appearances as many of them were being held in custody in the next room.

Alexander has undergone many health problems and had transplants over the past year. His immune system is very unbalanced and vulnerable, he said.

“I think this is going to become a new normal. It’s going to have a terrible effect on our economy. Where it gets problematic is criminal defendants have a right to a speedy trial. If they evoke their speedy trial rights, the court would have to determine that this pandemic and its circumstance is great enough to ignore somebody’s speedy trial rights,” Alexander said.

Another problem in the criminal justice system is how judges will get jurors.

“Jurors do a wonderful thing in our justice system and it would collapse without their service. People are going to be already put upon — schools are closed. One of the parents will have to be at home to take care of the kids. To require them to do jury service is too much. Until this thing blows over, this is going to be a catastrophe. Attorneys, in my view, aren’t a big consideration in this process but someone like myself, who is immune system compromised, the idea of sitting next to somebody that I don’t know for three days straight in a trial and breathing their air and them breathing mine without available testing. We could all potentially be plague barriers. If that is the case, it is too uncertain of a time. I did a disservice to my clients today by not interacting with them at all but I don’t know what they have and they don’t know what I have,” he said.

Alexander said the county jail inmates are in a terrible place with a pandemic breaking.

“They don’t have the ability to get tested easily. When one inmate tests positive, that is going to rip through that jail population like nobody’s business. While I am probably doing them a disservice by not informing them in person, I think I am doing a broader service for them by keeping me away from them. It’s not that I think they’re unhealthy, I’m just not going to take any chances so I put (my cases) out 45 days, and that may not be enough. Fast-forward 45 days and it is going to get a ton worse,” Alexander said.

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Jim Headley is a reporter covering breaking news, crime and justice around Pinal County. He can be reached at jheadley@pinalcentral.com.

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