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Weed man accused of child molestation to have first trial in Siskiyou courtroom in 10 months

Bill Choy
Siskiyou Daily News

The Siskiyou County Superior Court soon will begin chipping away at a backlog of 89 criminal jury cases, beginning Wednesday with a trial for a 40-year-old Weed man accused of several child molestation charges.

Glenn Strawder has been in the Siskiyou County Jail since his arrest on November 14, 2018, said Siskiyou County District Attorney Kirk Andrus. 

“We have many of these cases backed up and ready to be tried," Andrus said, but the county needs jurors. “You have probably heard ‘justice delayed is justice denied.’  Justice has definitely been delayed and we owe it to the accused to get trials accomplished expeditiously.” 

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Strawder is accused of two counts of lewd acts upon a child under 14, sexual penetration by foreign object, and a special allegation of probation ineligibility, since he had already been convicted of previous felonies. 

Glenn Strawder

No jury cases have been held in Siskiyou County for about 10 months because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A trial was scheduled to begin in December, said JoAnn Bicego, Assistant Presiding Judge for the Siskiyou County Superior Court, but COVID-19 cases surged and the Governor announced a plan for regional stay at home orders for regions with limited ICU availability.  

“The court determined that the uncertainties and risks at that time were too great to proceed,” Bicego said. Since that time, however, hospitalizations have decreased and the Northern California region is the only region without a stay-at-home order. Even if a stay-at-home order was put into place, essential services can continue and jurors would be required to come to court.   

“The court continues to monitor circumstances on a daily basis and will continue to do so even after jury trials have started,” Bicego said. “Courts provide an essential service and must remain open to provide citizens with access to justice, even during a pandemic ... The jury system is one of the foundations of our democracy and jury service is an important civic duty.” 

Andrus said even with the hiatus of jury trials, his office has “still been able to resolve quite a few cases, and there has been great cooperation with everybody involved in the criminal justice system.” 

However, Andrus noted there are always cases that need to be tried by a jury, and often these are "very serious" cases.   

The court explored the possibility of conducting trials in an offsite location, including county and other government buildings, conference centers, churches and empty commercial buildings.   

“Those locations were either unavailable, cost prohibitive or unable to meet all of the needs of a jury trial,” said Bicego. “We were close to entering into an agreement to use a building at the (Siskiyou Golden) Fairgrounds when wildfires broke out and fire personnel moved into the buildings to coordinate suppression efforts."

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Meanwhile, the county worked with the court to reconfigure an existing courtroom to conduct jury trials with social distancing and other safety protocols in place. The standard jury box, railings and all fixed seating were removed from the courtroom. The juror chairs are now more than six feet apart in the area previously reserved for public seating. The public will have access to the proceedings remotely, Bicego said. Plexi-glass has also been installed around the witness stand and in other areas of the courtroom.  The ventilation system in the courtroom pulls fresh air in, and there are windows that can be opened and air purifiers in use.  

Bicego said they have worked closely with the Siskiyou County Public Health Officer and Public Health Director and both approved the modifications.

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Everyone in the courtroom is required to wear a mask and there will be hand sanitizer and gloves available. The courtroom will also be sanitized each day and throughout the day as necessary. 

A nearby courtroom has been converted to a jury assembly and deliberation room so jurors can stay socially distant when they are deliberating. 

Before COVID-19, jurors came into the courtroom with a large group of people. “That will no longer happen,” Bicego said.  

Jurors will now be summoned in small groups so that they can comply with social distancing requirements. In many trials, jurors will be asked to fill out a questionnaire on the first day. Bicego said that will help minimize the time they are required to be in the courtroom and expedite the jury selection process. Since small groups will be brought in each day, it will take longer to seat a jury and prospective juror may find that there will be days during their service that they will not be required to come into the courthouse and other days when they will only be needed for part of the day. 

“The court is acutely aware of the reasonable concerns that potential jurors may have serving during these unprecedented times,” Bicego said. “The court encourages individuals who are summoned to call the jury commissioner at the phone number on the summons with any specific questions or concerns.” 

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The court has been conducting hearings remotely using video technology whenever possible.

“Some have questioned why jury trials are not being done remotely,” she said. While some courts in California have used video technology to conduct jury trials, this has only happened in civil cases.  California law and Constitutional rights that apply when someone is charged with a crime do not permit the court to conduct a jury trial in a criminal case other than in person, she added. 

The concerns of potential jurors “is obviously legitimate," said Andrus. "We are hoping that this dissipates soon with vaccinations and lower rates of infection and illness.  Once we begin trials again we have lots of work to do to catch back up.” 

Photo of a COVID-19 ready courtroom at the Siskiyou County Courthouse.

Normally, Individuals charged with crimes have a Constitutional right to a speedy trial, typically within 30 to 60 days of being arraigned on criminal charges. While the current state of emergency has allowed the California Chief Justice to grant temporary emergency orders to extend speedy trial deadlines, the court cannot completely halt trials, Bicego said. 

“When trials are delayed, victims wait long periods of time for resolution or restitution,” she said. “Over time, witnesses become unavailable, memories fade and it may become more difficult for a prosecutor to pursue charges.” 

And, she said, defendants, who are presumed innocent until found guilty have been in jail for many months waiting for their trials.  

“As numbers at our already overcrowded jail increase, inmates and jail staff are put at increased risk of infection,” Bicego stated. “Those defendants not in jail may face other impacts on their lives, including in employment and housing, because of unresolved cases that have been delayed.” 

It is critical for the court to start jury trials in a manner that is as safe as possible for all involved but allows the justice system to move forward, Judge Bicego said. 

Currently, only one courtroom in the courthouse meets social distancing requirements for a jury trial.  

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“Once trials start, we expect them to continue as we work through the backlog,” Bicego said.  “We will, of course, be monitoring the public health concerns and make further modifications as necessary.” 

 Andrus said the cases have been ready to try and his office is ready to begin. 

“(These trials) have been rescheduled several times, which causes logistical challenges for our staff,” he said. “But we want to move these cases.  However, remember that witnesses have many of the same concerns that jurors havem– just that there are fewer witnesses than potential jurors.” 

“The Siskiyou County Superior Court has been collaborative in receiving input from the parties involved and seem to be doing whatever they can to provide a safe place for jurors to congregate and witnesses to testify,” he added.  

There are also many civil trials waiting to be scheduled, Bicego noted.

Since criminal cases take priority due to a defendant’s speedy trial rights, many civil trials have been taken off calendar since the pandemic began and have not yet been rescheduled.