Bennington County Superior Court — Criminal Division

Bennington County Superior Court.

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BENNINGTON — The county has received the go-ahead to restart criminal jury trials, with the first trial in a year and a half expected to take place in July.

The local state courthouse was cleared on Friday to hold jury trials, after an evaluation of the building’s airflow passed safety standards, according to state court officials.

But Bennington County’s first pandemic-era jury trial isn’t expected to happen until sometime in July. The court needs at least eight weeks to summon potential jurors to a jury draw, which precedes a jury trial, Chief Superior Judge Brian Grearson said in an email Wednesday.

Meanwhile, at a hearing Wednesday afternoon, Bennington Superior Judge Cortland Corsones said the county’s first jury draw since trials were suspended statewide in March 2020 will take place at the end of July.

“Good … Let’s get on with it,” Vermont Defender General Matt Valerio said of the decision Wednesday.

Since the state Supreme Court put jury trials on hold to slow the spread of COVID-19, defense attorneys have been questioning the constitutionality of the order, particularly on behalf of clients who have been stuck in jail without a trial.

As of Wednesday morning, according to the state Department of Corrections’ online data, around 280 people were being held while their court cases were pending. They include Bennington County defendants who have been detained as far back as 2018.

“Many of my clients have been held in pretrial incarceration well beyond the 60-day speedy trial period because of COVID. Imagine being deemed innocent after that,” defense attorney Rick Burgoon said.

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“The client in pretrial incarceration is presumed innocent. But that client and the guy convicted and incarcerated post-trial have been cellmates,” he said.

The county’s trial short list has not yet been finalized, Grearson said. But he expects the court to discuss this with prosecutors and defense attorneys over the next few weeks.

Bennington County State’s Attorney Erica Marthage also welcomed news of the local trial restart.

“The criminal justice system in Bennington County has worked hard to keep cases moving toward resolution, even in the absence of jury trials,” she said in an email Wednesday. “However, there are cases that can only be resolved with a trial, and I think we’re all ready to get that process started.”

Marthage acknowledged the state judiciary’s efforts in finding a way to restart jury trials “in a manner that protects the health and safety of all participants.”

Windham County is expected to open the path for the state’s trial restart, with jury selection scheduled for May 17 in Brattleboro.

Since courthouses are still limiting the number of people who can enter, Grearson said public access to trials will be provided either through livestreaming or on the court’s official hearing platform online.

Bennington’s county courthouse, meanwhile, has not yet been greenlighted to hold trials, so civil jury trials remain on hold. But court officials are discussing whether local civil cases could be listed as backups to criminal cases scheduled for trial.

Contact Tiffany Tan at ttan@benningtonbanner.com or @tiffgtan on Facebook and Twitter.


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