COVID: Los Angeles County Superior Court system struggles with backlog amid pandemic

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Los Angeles County Superior Court is struggling to figure out how to operate amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The courts have instituted several safety and health protocols, but while some trials have been allowed to be held, others have been postponed, creating a large backlog of cases.

Charmane Henderson of Hawthorne has been waiting nearly three years for her civil trial against the Torrance Police Department to begin. Her son, 24-year-old Deautry Ross, died after being arrested in January 2018.

"I feel lost," she said in an interview with ABC7.

What makes the trial even more pressing is the fact that Henderson has been diagnosed with Stage 2 ovarian cancer. She and her attorney are concerned the trial delays may prevent her from ever testifying.

"They stopped my treatment, so my health is -- I wouldn't say worse, but only God knows," Henderson said.

Henderson's attorney, DeWitt Lacy, said he will ask the judge to expedite the trial once it is scheduled, but he has no idea when that will happen.

"There hasn't been any civil trials in the Central District since March of last year," said Lacy.

A spokesperson for Superior Court said the system is "up and running with modifications, including many health and safety protocols, including enhanced cleaning; a mandatory mask and social distancing requirements; an order that restricts access to our courthouses to promote social distancing; installing plexiglass in nearly 8,000 locations in courtrooms and courthouses; the need to make appointments for in-person Clerk's Office and Self-Help services; remote courtroom appearance technology; telework for many employees; and reduced calendars, etc."

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But in-person jury trials have been practically banished from the nearly 600 courtrooms in the county because of the pandemic.

The presiding judge for Superior Courts declined an interview with Eyewitness News and a spokesperson for the courts couldn't tell us how many cases are still waiting to go to trial.

But documents from the Judicial Council of California show that between March and August of last year, roughly 1.4 million fewer cases were resolved in the state than in 2019.

In Los Angeles County, that translates to 385,000 more cases waiting to be resolved than the year before.

But Superior Court is now facing a lawsuit filed by five legal groups, seeking to halt in-person traffic and eviction trials for safety reasons.

"The court facilities are crowded and poorly ventilated," said Jesselyn Friley of Public Counsel, which is one of the groups suing. "Their hallways and courtrooms are too small for people to maintain six feet of social distance and not everyone is wearing a mask. Even sometimes the bailiffs and judges will take their masks off."

Laurie Levenson, a criminal law professor at Loyola Marymount University, said non-criminal trials should not be held.

"We have had people not only get sick, but die," she told Eyewitness News.

Levenson was referring to three court employees who died recently from COVID-19. She said court administrators have been improvising throughout the pandemic, and many of the steps taken don't work.

"We have to look at it and listen to the people who work in those courts, realize that they're putting their lives on the line every single day," she said.
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