By Matt Sledge | NOLA.com | July 13, 2020
For more than four years after her daughter Renata was stabbed to death in St. Roch, Bobbie Vaughn has been waiting for the alleged killer to go on trial.
Vaughn, 72, prays every day that God will give her the strength to go on. She is raising her daughter Renata’s son, along with two children from another daughter killed in New Orleans, and is determined to see justice done.
But with the court system crippled by the coronavirus pandemic, justice may have to wait another year. Vaughn is one of hundreds of victims who have seen court cases delayed since the contagion began crippling the every day workings of the city in March. Observers say a system that was often sluggish has ground nearly to a halt, and some predict that jury trials won’t resume until scientists find a vaccine.
In the meantime, Vaughn keeps praying.
“I ask God to bring justice,” she said. “Justice and closure.”
Five days after the first case of the novel coronavirus was detected in Louisiana, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman announced that he would no longer transport inmates to court. They haven’t been back since.
Judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys have adapted to the new realities of the coronavirus era by holding bail and other hearings through telephone and video calls. Participants say the new pace is nothing like the old one, however.
Justice has long been a high-volume affair in New Orleans, if not a speedy one. Last year, the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office obtained convictions on 5,769 charges, 99% of the time through a guilty plea. The average felony case took 129 days to wind its way through the court system in 2017.
After the pandemic took hold, it took weeks for criminal justice leaders to craft a process for accepting guilty pleas remotely. The once-busy Criminal District courthouse remains closed to the general public.
Derwyn Bunton, chief of the Orleans Public Defenders, says he’s still leery of remote pleas. He’s worried about being able to fully inform his clients of the consequences of a plea over a video call. It’s also been hard to investigate cases, he said.
“Trying to run around finding witnesses, as you’re appropriately social-distanced and masked-up, it’s very difficult,” he said. “The challenges are serious, and they’re all around — the same challenges for everybody in the system.”
Court officials say it’s hard to quantify just how badly the shutdown has slowed the pace of justice because of an earlier calamity — the December cyber-attack on city servers.
Still, the president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a watchdog agency that tracks the speed of justice, said it was clear that “little has transpired.”
“Every section’s docket is larger and older today than they were pre-pandemic. It is unlikely that the backlog will meaningfully improve until a vaccine is available,” said Rafael Goyeneche.
The hurdles haven’t slowed down prosecutors’ decisions on whether to accept or reject new cases, according to a spokesman for the District Attorney’s Office. Case screeners are still reviewing new cases from the New Orleans Police Department.
However, the grand juries that indict serious cases like murder and rape haven’t resumed. District Attorney’s Office spokesman Ken Daley said his agency was working with the court and other officials.
“We hope to have a sufficient number of grand jurors assigned soon so that the panel can begin its examination of waiting cases,” he said. “The coronavirus stoppage has had an effect, preventing the consideration of indictments in several waiting cases because of a cause beyond the state’s control.”
Orleans Parish Criminal District Court judges say they’re taking a cautious approach to protect public health. A plan to partially reopen the courthouse the first week of July was paused when the state’s coronavirus situation worsened. Chief Judge Karen Herman says officials will re-evaluate next week.
The pandemic has put some defendants in limbo — especially jailed defendants who want to go before a jury. That’s often how the most serious cases like murder and rape are resolved.
Gov. John Bel Edwards has extended legal deadlines and the Louisiana Supreme Court has stopped the clock on speedy trial calculations, which would otherwise allow defendants to force their day in court.
Meanwhile, officials acknowledge that with more than a thousand new coronavirus cases a day in Louisiana, it could be hard to convince citizens to show up for jury selection. An outright prohibition on jury trials expired on June 30, and a court in Hammond held what may have been the state’s first post-pandemic jury trial earlier this month.
The chief judge of Orleans Parish Civil District Court, Chris Bruno, said he believes jury trials can be held, and he has a plan to do so with what he calls extensive safety precautions, including by spreading jurors out across a courtroom gallery.
Criminal court judges have not scheduled any jury trials, however.
“I don’t foresee that happening any time in the very near future,” Herman said. “But obviously we’re very mindful of the fact that defendants deserve their day in court, and we’re very mindful of the fact that this is an issue that needs to be addressed.”
Bunton predicts a whirlwind of activity whenever the court can resume something like normal operations — but it’s unclear how many defense attorneys and prosecutors will be around to handle it.
The Orleans Public Defenders and the District Attorney’s Office have both furloughed employees during the economic downturn. Bunton says that as a result of additional funding from the state, his agency reversed cuts at the start of the month. However, it’s unclear what will happen to the state budget in the coming months, and the Legislature could meet again in the fall.
The District Attorney’s Office also furloughed 56 employees until at least Aug. 2 due to a projected $700,000 budget shortfall. Daley said he had no updates on the furlough.
Inside the New Orleans jail, 138 people are awaiting trial for homicide, 117 for robbery and 45 for rape. Bunton says some of his clients are frustrated that they can’t go to trial and put their case behind them. Outside, countless victims and survivors are also waiting for cases to come to a conclusion.
Vaughn, for her part, has spent nearly six years listening to the wheels of justice creak. In October 2014, her daughter Teita died after developing a blood clot, which investigators said was the result of being attacked by her boyfriend.
The boyfriend was arrested on a manslaughter count, but charges were refused.
Then, in February 2016, police accused the estranged boyfriend of another daughter, Renata, of stabbing Renata dozens of times with a screwdriver and setting a Touro Street house on fire with her inside.
Renata had recently left the man and started a new life, Bobbi Vaughn said.
The man, Anthony Jones, is in jail on a second-degree murder charge. His case was slowed by questions surrounding his mental competency, which were only resolved when doctors declared him ready for trial in September.
Vaughn breathed a sigh of relief. Then came the coronavirus. Ten months later, Jones’s case is at a standstill. She praised a victim counselor who works for the DA’s office for keeping her informed.
In the meantime, Vaughn is making her three grandchildren do their schoolwork on an electronic tablet. She tries to give them small comforts like take-out meals on their birthdays.
“Everything has been going pretty good for them,” she said. “I never let them see me crying, because then they’re going to start crying.”