What happens to victims in sexual assault cases making their way through the court system during a pandemic? What about defendants? Attorneys? Advocates?

In Carlton County, there were 11 open sex crime cases when COVID-19 started to drastically affect the everyday operations of the community in mid-March 2020. As the pandemic continued, the number of cases grew, with 16 total open sex crime cases in the county by summer 2021.

With Minnesota jury trials suspended from November 2020 to March 2021 out of COVID-19 safety concerns, the parties in these cases were thrown into virtual courtrooms and unprecedented situations.

Virtual court

“There’s been both good and bad involved in this," Carlton County Victim Witness Coordinator John Parenteau said.

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A positive point referenced by Parenteau was Zoom court hearings, which allowed victims in sexual assault cases to attend proceedings on their case from their homes. He believes that more victims have attended hearings during the pandemic than in the past because of this factor.

One alleged victim told the Pine Journal that virtual hearings permitted her to desensitize to the situation and be "a fly on the wall." The Pine Journal does not name victims of crimes. The victim in this case asked to remain anonymous out of fear for her safety. The Pine Journal verified her identity.

However, sometimes it allows the defendant to do the same, which can result in victims feeling as though their cases do not have as much magnitude as they would in a physical courtroom, Parenteau explained.

“It’s not like they’re held to the same level when you think that a defendant can appear in court from their living room," he said.

Access to the internet and glitches with technology were other issues present in virtual court, Mary Faulkner, Sexual Assault Multidisciplinary Action Response Team coordinator for southern St. Louis County, pointed out.

A victim in a case could mistakenly have their camera turned on or be asked to identify themselves when appearing via Zoom, Faulkner said. By inviting the courtroom into their homes, they may feel more exposed than they would if they were one of many people in a courtroom.

Each courthouse saw an average of 500-700 Zoom hearings per week, according to Chief Public Defender Daniel Lew, who didn't mention any positive aspects to virtual court besides protecting public health.

Lew said access to high-speed internet has also been a problem for some defendants who are not in custody, while those in custody experienced extreme isolation.

Losing faith

Approximately 7% of defendants in Carlton County sexual assault cases were allowed conditional pretrial release in 2019. From the start of 2020 until July 2021, that number rose to a little over 29%.

Carlton County court officials did not respond in a timely manner to requests for comment on this matter other than to say they would need to examine the numbers in order to provide an explanation.

Gary Meader / gmeader@duluthnews.com
Gary Meader / gmeader@duluthnews.com

After seeing her perpetrator released from custody on more than one occasion, an alleged victim in a case said she was beginning to feel as though his rights outweighed hers.

“I’m losing faith in the judicial system," she said. “I’m angry … and I don’t feel like I have any rights.”

When it comes to demanding a speedy trial, a defendant's right can outweigh a victim's, Carlton County Attorney Lauri Ketola said.

Although state statute does allow for a victim to demand a speedy trial, Ketola said a defendant's demand carries more weight due to the fact that they may be in custody while awaiting court proceedings, whereas victims are not.

However, when it came to pandemic times, nobody saw a trial — regardless of their party.

The wait for justice

For Ketola, one of the most daunting aspects of not knowing when jury trials for sexual assault cases would resume was the risk of losing victim and witness testimony.

The emotional toll for victims in cases leading up to trial can be significant, and sometimes it's difficult for them to continue involvement with cases that span long periods of time, she explained.

Lew and Ketola both said engaging with clients throughout this time has been crucial.

“I think it’s really hard on victim(s)/survivors because a lot of times they can feel like their life is on hold," Faulkner said.

Even when there isn't a pandemic, sexual assault cases aren't handled the same way in real life as they are on television — they take time, Faulkner said. There are many small details that need to fall into place for a trial to happen, with an average court case spanning up to 20 months.

“It’s definitely a marathon," she said.

During his time as a victim witness coordinator, Parenteau said he's seen victims become more worn down as their cases slowly progressed.

“These processes can be very long,” he said. “But then when you add the pandemic into it, it’s even … a longer process.”

As a former law enforcement agent, Parenteau said he is more concerned about victims and witnesses losing their memory than losing interest in a case. The more time that passes, the more blurry details of an event become.

The end of a trial often brings closure and relief to victims, Parenteau said. Having the chance to read victim impact statements and see their perpetrator sentenced if found guilty can be an invaluable part to healing.

“They’re waiting for justice,” he said. “They’re waiting for their day in court.”

Mental and emotional tolls

Victims in sexual assault cases are often part of a vulnerable population, making it difficult for them to access all of the necessary mental health resources, Faulkner explained. She referred to the effects of the pandemic on victims as dominoes falling down.

“When you have something like a global pandemic and you’re potentially going through a trial and you’re having difficulty maybe accessing mental health services … that’s a lot for anyone to deal with," Faulkner said.

In her victim impact statement, a woman described her day-to-day life as simply managing her PTSD symptoms.

Victim impact statements are confidential unless the author grants permission for use or chooses to read the statement aloud during a sentencing hearing. In this case, the victim gave the statement to the Pine Journal and granted permission for use in this story.

"I struggle to function every single day," she said in the statement. "I don’t consider myself a ‘fun’ person to visit with anymore."

Defendants share the frustration of managing mental health during the pandemic, Lew said, explaining that many were isolated in custody for the duration of the jury trial suspension.

His public defender's office has also become overloaded with work and stress throughout the pandemic. He said they know the stakes are high, but they also don't anticipate that cases will be resolved quickly.

'Not a race'

Even though jury trials have resumed, Lew said the line is significantly long. Defendants have also become restless, but for Lew, it's all about putting quality before speed.

“Access to justice is not a race," he said. “It does require time.”

Lew's office is urging their court partners to be methodical and safe when resuming trials.

“We must approach this with balance, thoughtfulness, mindfulness," he said. “This will require patience and grace, and most of all to not panic.”

Although many cases have seen trials delayed during the pandemic, one alleged victim believes the legal process most likely would have taken the same amount of time in a non-pandemic world, but said it was frustrating nonetheless.

“I want my day in court," she said. “I want this to be done with.”

Despite the wait and the frustrations, this woman plans to remain hopeful that her case will be resolved.

“When you let go of hopefulness, bitterness takes its place," she said. “At some point, I realized that I had to ask for hopefulness to come back to me.”