LOCKPORT — It was March 16, 2020.

Three days earlier, the New York State Courts had announced that the start of all new trials, criminal or civil, would be suspended in response to the emerging novel coronavirus pandemic.

Niagara County prosecutors had just begun to call their first witnesses in the cold case murder trail of Joseph Belstadt, accused of the 1993 murder of Mandy Steingasser. Then-Niagara County Court Judge Sara Sheldon had vowed to push forward with the trial, saying she would do everything she could to keep it  going, including quarantining the courtroom.

But the escalating concerns over the pandemic could not be denied.

Sheldon, reluctantly, granted a motion for a mistrial by Belstadt's defense team, accepting their arguments that at some time during a trial, expected to last up to eight weeks, a member of the jury, a witness, one of the lawyers in the case or even she could contract the deadly virus.

"We're gonna stop," Sheldon told the jurors who were hearing the case. "I think we need to try this case another time. And, unfortunately, it will have to be with another jury."

That jury then left the county courthouse in Lockport. There have been no other trial jurors in the courthouse since.

CASES WAIT

Over the course of the past year, dozens of cases like the Steingasser murder have sat in limbo. Niagara County prosecutors say they have 24 "serious felony cases" ready for trial.

District Attorney Brian Seaman said another 28 felony cases need to complete just a few pre-trial hearings before they will be ready for a jury as well. The charges in those cases range from murder and attempted murder to rape and sexual abuse, with some serious assaults also included. 

Of the 54 cases Seaman cited in an interview with the Gazette, 11 are murders.

Boxes full of files and evidence in those cases pack the office of First Assistant District Attorney Doreen Hoffmann. They are stacked so high, the lead homicide prosecutor sometimes needs a step-ladder to reach them.

"I'm used to seeing a (serious) cases go to trial a year after the occurrence. Sometimes a little more or a little less," Seaman said. "But now some of these cases are going to be a year or two before trial."

MOUNTING CASES

And while the courts went on pause in March 2020, crime did not. So the number of criminal cases entering the justice system has added to a growing backlog waiting for the courthouse doors to re-open.

Seaman likens the situation in the courts to a dam about to burst. 

"We're getting prepared," the DA said, "And I know the judges have been getting ready."

How the tsunami of cases will be handled will become apparent soon. Judge Janet DiFiore, the chief judge of New York's highest court, the Court of Appeals, has announced that "a limited number of civil and criminal jury trials will resume on March 22."

Simply setting trial dates may help to clear some of the backlog.

"Some of the (pending trials) could go to plea," Seaman said. "That tends to happen close to trial.

That view is shared by veteran Niagara County defense attorney Robert Viola. He said as the inherent risks of a trial, from both prosecutors and defendants becomes more real, plea offers can become more palatable.

"The potential of a trial can force both sides to sharpen their pencils (and plea bargain)," Viola said," as they views the perils on the eve of a trial."

Viola says the changes brought on by the pandemic, have effected the way that defense attorneys prepare for cases, particularly in criminal cases.

"As far as having meaningful (evidentiary) hearings (on video streams), we're finding they aren't as effective as in-person (proceedings)," Viola said. "You don't have the same ability to get a feel for a witness. What you might call the 'sweat factor.' It's different when you're having a personal conversation with someone rather than a FaceTime conversation."

But Viola says some of the technological changes created to all the courts to function in during the pandemic have been useful.

"I think some good has come of it," he said. "A lot of what lawyers do doesn't require in-court appearances. Things like making filings, or setting schedules or status reports. So those are very effectively conducted virtually."

Viola also said New York's bail reform law, which reduced the number and types of crimes for which defendants can be held in custody, has helped lessen the burden for people waiting for their day in court.

"Rather than sitting in jail (waiting for trial), they have been able to be out (of custody), so the timing (of bail reform) has been good (in the pandemic)," Viola said.

TIME CONCERNS

Both Viola and Seaman acknowledged that the hold on trials has raised issues of fairness and justice for defendants and victims.

"There may be speedy trial issues," Viola said. "There are provisions in the law for 'exceptional circumstances' that can delay trials and a once in a century pandemic is exceptional circumstances."

"The closer in time that justice can be achieved, the better," Seaman said. "Victims and their families have been waiting and defendants have waited a long time as well."

Normally, Niagara County has two county court judges and one state supreme court justice available to handle felony trials, That number will likely be reduced for the next year however, as newly elected County Court Judge Caroline Wojtaszek, who spent the last four years as the county district attorney, works through potential conflicts on her docket.

Court administrators may be able to assign judges from Erie County to help with the caseload here, but the challenges of the pandemic backlog in cases exists there as well. 

"You can have all the prosecutors and defense attorneys ready to go," Viola said. "But you do need judges."

Seaman said State Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr. and Niagara County Court Judge Matthew J. Murphy III have been working for a few weeks now to begin scheduling trials. He said the current plan calls for one judge to be on trial while the other handles pre-trial proceedings.

Most trials will be given two-week blocks of time, though some, like the Steingasser murder case will take longer.

"They're tentatively putting together a schedule of some trials and if history tells us anything, we'll get some pleas and then we'll see what trial can come next," Seaman said. "It's complicated. It's a bit of a jigsaw puzzle the judges and lawyers are putting together."

As that puzzle comes together, Seaman said it could be daunting.

"I could see us carrying-on trials non-stop for the next 18 months to two years," the DA said.

And lurking behind the crisis in felony cases is a potentially large backlog of misdemeanor proceedings in the justice courts in the towns and villages. Among the most high-profile cases there is the pending trail of three Lewiston adults, charged with providing booze and pot to at least three teenage girls, who then claimed they were sexually assaulted in a Mountainview Drive home.

Dubbed the "Lewiston Party House" case, the trial is postponed indefinitely.

"There are hundreds of misdemeanor cases that need to be adjudicated and haven't because the (justice) courts have been closed," Seaman said. 

As large as the challenge of clearing the criminal case backlog appears, neither Viola nor Seaman seemed intimidated by it.

"The good things is we have a lot of lawyers," seaman said. "Our office is anxious to get back in the courtrooms and do this stuff. It's what my assistants like to do."

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