The impact of COVID on the court system and families seeking justice

Local News

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (WSYR-TV) — Throughout the pandemic, there have been a limited number of jury trials in New York State. In Onondaga County alone, they successfully completed one trial over the last 10 months. Another attempt ended in a mistrial after a potential COVID exposure was suspected in one of the jurors.

Onondaga County District Attorney, Bill Fitzpatrick, said this pandemic, along with the new Bail Reform laws, will cause a delay in the system for at least two years. One of the trials sitting on the desk of prosecutors is that in the case of Jay’mier Gillard’s murder.

On July 13, 2019, police say Jay’mier Gillard was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting. He was 18 years old. Two men have now been charged with his murder, James Everson and Amir Bordies. Their trial has been pushed back at least three times now because of the pandemic.

In the meantime, Jay’mier’s mom, Kimberly Gillard, is left waiting for justice. Each time the trial is rescheduled, she gathers her strength to go through the grueling process.

“It takes a lot for me to get emotionally strong for the trial and I work very hard to try to stay strong in that courtroom,” Kimberly Gillard said. “And then for me to build up all this strength only to be told that the trial is not going to happen, it kind of tears me down.”

Since the death of her son, Gillard has been haunted by rumors. There were several witnesses the night of the shooting. Gillard worries that each month the trial is pushed back, those witnesses will have more time to sit on the facts and potentially change their story. A trial, she said, would clear everything up.

“It’ll give us the truth. you know, once we get that closure, we’ll be able to move on in the grieving process,” Gillard said.

This waiting game is impacting thousands of New Yorkers waiting for justice. Not having those trials, of course, also impacts the justice system overall.

“We have a county of 500,000 people, give or take. And we usually try 60-70 cases a year. So do the math, that means there’s at least a backlog of 69-70 cases,” Fitzpatrick said.

To speed things up as people are waiting at the Justice Center, Fitzpatrick is offering what he calls, “the COVID discount” to defendants. It includes plea deals with shorter sentences, but nobody’s biting.

“So these things are recipes for disaster, we have to wait until a sufficient number of the population has been immunized or we can have more accurate and more rapid testing so that we can bring jurors in,” Fitzpatrick said.

For now, they’re doing virtual preliminary exams. But when it comes to a trial, Fitzpatrick said it needs to take place in person, so jurors can see and read the actions of the defendant and ultimately, decide their fate.

“You can’t have a trial where jurors are completely isolated from seeing the witness, seeing the facial expressions, me or the defense attorney being allowed to cross-examine a witness effectively without the witness wearing a mask. And so the jury can see his or her facial gesticulations, how they react to questions,” Fitzpatrick said. “A trial by its very nature is a personal, public, intimate event. Jurors have to be able to look at exhibits, sometimes hold an exhibit.” 

And those trials, in their nature, are also meant to bring justice to families like the Gillards. Though Kimberly doesn’t know when her son will finally get the justice he deserves, she’s relieved they’re one step closer to getting there.

“I’m happy that I’m getting justice for my son. But I know that there are a lot of mothers out there who don’t have that type of closure or even a step close to that,” Gillard said. “So I would like to say if you know something, say something. Help these mothers out. Because that’s a very hard thing to deal with. Knowing that nobody has been arrested or locked up for the death of your child.”

The state is requesting all counties have at least one active grand jury ready to go. In Onondaga County, they are waiting for daily COVID cases to go down. Once that happens, they’ll start bringing jurors in and deal with high priority cases like Jay’mier’s first.

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