Could the Coronavirus Change the American Justice System?

The coronavirus is consuming virtually every sector of American life. 

But, the one area that has gotten little attention is the virus’ effect on the American system of justice. 

And, D.C. Witness has already gotten an inclining of what might come at DC Superior Court as city officials try to control the spread of the virus. 

Our reporters have seen lawyers, judges and audience members wearing masks in courtrooms to ward off contraction of the virus.  

This week a  preliminary hearing for a murder case needed to be postponed because a detective, who was due to testify,  did not make it to court because he was experiencing flu-like symptoms. There is no evidence, or suggestion, that the detective might have been infected, but he followed the advice to stay away. 

In postponing the case, for a week, the presiding judge said he would not require the detective to come to the courthouse and risk exposing the thousands of people that frequent the building daily. Further postponements seem inevitable as caution dictates that people experiencing any type of illness stay away.

At a time when DC is suspending any activity that requires large public gatherings, it is useful to remember that more than 10,000 people visit the DC courthouse every day.

So far, the courthouse has not followed major sports leagues, mass events and schools by shutting down. But it is unclear, and there have been no announcements so far that the court is either ordered to, or will decide to, close. 

Would the court move online, if so how might that work? 

Would long planned trials be continued, both denying justice to victims and the accused? Could the virus suspend a defendant’s constitutional right to a speedy trial? 

Would confined citizens, with orders for release, remain locked up? And would  those newly arrested (because crime is unlikely to stop) remain incarcerated when they might otherwise have been released? 

Is the jail system ready for this? 

Doesn’t unnecessarily confining people increase the risk of the contagion, thereby making DC complicit should any of the inmates die from the virus?   

And, how long might it take for the wheels of justice to get back up to speed?  

Obviously containing and eradicating the pandemic is the national priority.

But what D.C. Witness has already seen at DC Superior Court suggests that another victim of Covid-19 will be the American justice system. And moreover, we, as a society, have yet to grasp the full implications of these extraordinary times.