Alaska’s courts set to resume in-person jury trials

District Court Judge Kirsten Swanson presides over her first case in December 2016. Swanson and other Alaska judges started using new pretrial risk scores this month. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)
District Court Judge Kirsten Swanson presides over her first case in December 2016. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

Alaska’s courts are set to again hold in-person jury trials, as coronavirus restrictions are lifted. That’s despite the arrival of the omicron variant and rising case counts in the state.

Trials have been put on hold sporadically since April 2020. The pauses led to a backlog of cases and concerns about defendants’ right to a speedy trial. It also put pressure on judges and lawyers to resolve criminal cases in other ways, like plea deals.

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In-person trials began in some locations this week and are set to resume across the state Monday, according to court system spokesperson Rebecca Koford.

Koford says COVID mitigation measures are in place in Alaska’s courtrooms, including masking and social distancing requirements, as well as better air filtration systems and plans to conduct some juror screening by phone and email instead of in person.

Still, court system data show only about 2 percent of criminal cases are resolved in jury trials. Prior to the pandemic, in 2019, the court system held a total of 188 trials, versus the nearly 130,000 hearings of other kinds the same year.

Among the highest profile cases set to be heard by juries as trials resume next week are murder charges against Steven Downs, who is accused of killing 20-year-old Sophie Sergie at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1993.

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Casey Grove is the host of Alaska News Nightly and a general assignment reporter at Alaska Public Media with an emphasis on crime and courts. Reach him at cgrove@alaskapublic.org.