Douglas County announced Thursday that jury trials would resume in April under a plan that was approved in November. In part, that plan includes using buildings at the Douglas County Fairgrounds to allow plenty of space for social distancing.
Since then, Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez has released statements saying that she was not consulted about that decision, she has concerns about the safety and security of the fairgrounds buildings, and “To suggest that he (Chief Judge James McCabria) and I met personally or consulted about the jury trial plan, or that he invited or asked for my or my office’s input is simply false.”
“… Unfortunately, this is yet another example of how an outspoken and honest woman is mischaracterized as untruthful by a male in power,” Valdez wrote.
But McCabria on Tuesday evening released two threads of emails between him, Valdez and other staff that seem to contradict Valdez’s public statements.
The Times has been waiting for an answer to a follow-up question to Valdez, sent via email to Deputy District Attorney Joshua Seiden, Monday afternoon: What specific security concerns does Valdez have about the fairgrounds buildings?
Copies of the emails received from McCabria answer that question, at least in part.
“The State is not at all comfortable with trying these serious cases at a make-shift courthouse where there is co-mingling of the attorneys, the defendant, and the jurors,” Valdez wrote in an email to the judge on March 3. “Also, our staff is not comfortable driving to and parking at the Fairgrounds. I’ve heard great concern from my staff and from law enforcement about this plan to conduct trials in a venue that is not properly secured. There are also a questions about firearms and where law enforcement will store their firearms when they are testifying.”
The county’s news release quoted public health officials related to concerns about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and Sheriff Jay Armbrister regarding security concerns.
“The court sought our input on what special security challenges exist with regard to moving jury trials outside of the judicial center,” Armbrister said in the county’s release. “People summoned for jury duty should feel confident that the Sheriff’s Office will provide a secure location for these proceedings to occur.”
The Times also inquired with the DA’s office about how many jury trials are currently backlogged in Douglas County but had not received an answer as of 8 p.m. Tuesday. The website that generally lists hearings scheduled for the next six months was not functional Tuesday evening.
Valdez also said in an email Feb. 24 that her office is “down 5 attorneys” and was looking to find out whether jury trials set during March would remain on the calendar.
Here are the news releases and statements, verbatim as the Times has received them over the past few days. The Times will archive any future statements in this post.
Thursday, March 18, 2021, news release: ‘Douglas County to resume jury trials in April’DistrictCourttrials-1
Monday, March 22, 2021: ‘District Attorney Suzanne Valdez’s Statement on Resuming Jury Trials’
(Received at 2:38 p.m. Monday)District-Attorney-Suzanne-Valdezs-Statement-on-Resuming-Jury-Trials
Monday, March 22, 2021: Email from Chief Judge James McCabria
(Received at 5:47 p.m. Monday)
You may be aware that the District Attorney’s Office has filed a motion to continue the State v. Michael Hormell jury trial that is set for April 5, 2021. There is a hearing on that motion at 9 a.m. this Wednesday, March 24, in Division 1. Many of these issues will be addressed at that time.
To the extent I can offer the following information as it relates to our efforts to consult with all stakeholders, I would offer the following, much of which is already public record:
At her request, the district court judges collectively met with Ms. Valdez at our monthly judge’s meeting on September 9, 2020. At that meeting, we invited open and frank communication about any and all issues that we could ethically address outside of any particular case. In the following weeks, before she was sworn into office, Individual judges also accepted her requests to discuss any general issues that the judicial canons would permit.
The Kansas Supreme Court’s Ad Hoc Jury Task Force publicly issued its report about resuming jury trials in light of COVID-19 concerns on August 4, 2020. Beginning shortly after that release, the district court began consulting with then-District Attorney Charles Branson’s office and members of the local bar (and local health officials and the Sheriff) to develop our local plan. That comprehensive ten-page Jury Plan was approved by the Kansas Supreme Court on October 30, 2020. The plan has been available publicly on our website since it was approved.
Douglas County District Court hosted an open house at the Flory Building December 17-18, 2020, for members of the local bar. The courtroom, jury selection room, attorney conference rooms, chambers, jury box and all the associated functions necessary to conduct a jury trial were in place for the bar to tour and offer feedback. Many attorneys attended, including members of the then District Attorney’s office. Ms. Valdez was invited to that open house and I personally spoke to Ms. Valdez while at the Flory Building on December 18, 2021. She expressed no concerns about the venue.
On February 8, 2021, the court held a half-day hearing in a well-attended criminal case at the Flory Building. The District Attorney’s Office appeared for the State for that hearing. There were no incidents of concern that either side brought to the court’s attention at that hearing. On March 4, 2021, Ms. Valdez met with Chief Judge James McCabria and Judge Amy Hanley to discuss the same concerns she raises in her public statement today about holding trials at the fairgrounds. Deputy District Attorneys Josh Seiden and Dave Melton were also in attendance and offered their comments.
As was said to Ms. Valdez at that meeting, we appreciated her input as we were then in the process of analyzing the April jury trial dockets. Those concerns were weighed along with all of the other considerations that factor into this important decision. As the judicial officers for this district, we announced the decision we believed appropriate to balance the interests of justice. As always, any party remains fully able to express concerns in individual cases and will be fully heard on those matters.
Chief District Court Judge
Tuesday, March 23, 2021: ‘District Attorney Suzanne Valdez’s Response to Chief Judge McCabria’s Statement’
(Received via email at 3:40 p.m. Tuesday)District-Attorney-Suzanne-Valdezs-Response-to-Chief-Judge-McCabrias-Statement
Tuesday, March 23, 2021: Email from Chief Judge James McCabria
(Received at 5:23 p.m. Tuesday)
“I affirm my earlier statements. As far as today’s statement, I am releasing the attached emails.”
The emails follow, starting with the earliest one on the last page of this PDF.ValdezMeetings
— Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached via email at email@example.com or 785-422-6363.