Wheels of justice continue to roll in new normal

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By: Chadwick Melder for the Natchitoches Parish District Attorney’s Office

Amid Pandemic Closures, the Natchitoches Parish Judicial System Continues with Virtual Remote Operations On most days, the criminal court proceedings scheduled in the 10th Judicial District Court are usually considered routine and perhaps uneventful. On this particular day, all the actors of the court are present and ready to proceed for another session of matters such as bail hearings, arraignments, motions and pre-trial motions.

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The district judge has called the first case from the docket, which is a hearing to determine bail eligibility for a defendant charged in a felony criminal matter. The defendant, represented by the Public Defender’s Office, detained at the Natchitoches Parish Detention Center since his arrest, is present for the hearing. His attorney asks the court for bail to be set, citing the defendant’s job status and family responsibilities.

The Natchitoches Parish District Attorney’s Office presents information to the court regarding any prior criminal history and weight of the evidence and requests a reasonable bail amount to ensure the defendant will return at a future date for trial. After hearing from both sides in the case and reviewing the relevant evidence presented, the judge set a bond in the matter. Next case.

A similar scenario plays out for the rest of the morning until the docket is clear. Prosecutors presented charges to the court, defendants entered pleas and the judge ruled on numerous motions from the bench. On any other day, and at any other time prior to mid-March 2020, this court date would be very similar to all others before it. Except, however, today none of the people participating are at the same location. The judge is presiding over the proceedings from the bench via remote live teleconferencing software, while the attorneys are participating in their respective offices. The defendant also had access to the live teleconference but remained at the detention center and was not transported to the courthouse.

The entire proceeding was disposed of without any of the participants being in contact with one another.

As with most jurisdictions in the United States, the 10th Judicial District Court is conducting much of the business of the court via remote teleconferencing. Judge Lala Sylvester, current chief judge of the District Court, said the remote court appearance “allows the judicial system to continue to work in regards to the current limitations placed on in-person participation.”

“We are being as pro-active as possible to provide the services and functions of the court, albeit through these electronic distancing methods,” said Judge Sylvester. Since mid-March, most in-person court proceedings have been suspended as per order from the Louisiana Supreme Court. All jury trials, both civil and criminal, have been suspended until at least June 30.

In consideration of the order, the state Supreme Court cited “the ongoing public health recommendation to reduce the risk of exposure to the virus and slowing the spread of the disease while balancing the need to protect the constitutional rights and public safety of the citizens of the state.” Judge Desiree Dyess was instrumental in implementing the teleconference program in the 10th Judicial District Court.

“We reviewed several of the available video teleconferencing products to ensure that we have secure proceedings. We were also mindful that the selected technology program had to perform properly so that we conduct a proper court proceeding that maintained the standards, integrity and expectations of our court and the public we serve,” said Judge Dyess.

While many criminal proceedings are now being conducted by remote access, any deemed emergency or sensitive matter may proceed in- person if determined by the court. Juvenile and some family court matters such as ‘Child in Need of Care’ proceedings, emergency child custody matters, proceedings related to emergency interdictions and mental health orders, temporary restraining orders and injunctions, and matters of public health related to the COVID-19 crisis may be heard in- person.

The Natchitoches Parish District Attorney’s Office has modified its in- office work schedules to reduce the number of employees in the office at one time. However, the office is working remotely and maintains a full staff to fulfill the responsibilities of the office. District Attorney Billy Joe Harrington and the five assistant district attorneys are on duty 24 hours per day, seven days per week.

“Yes, we have many challenges right now in all areas of our lives, however, the justice system continues to move forward and the pursuit of fair justice and serving the citizens remains our top priority,” he said. “The remote access for court appearances is working well for the circumstances that we find ourselves in. Because of these services, we are keeping as current as possible with our cases and continuing our work for the people of the parish. But the moment the Supreme Court allows us, we are ready to go back in-person court proceedings immediately,” said Harrington. “Our assistant district attorneys are working every day handling our caseloads, reviewing new cases, consulting with law enforcement on active cases, writing briefs and interviewing parties involved in cases. Our staff is still working diligently to help those we serve, particularly our crime victims. Our full-time victims’ assistance coordinator is regularly communicating with our registered victims in cases to support them and to assist them by keeping them informed of the scheduling changes of upcoming trial proceedings,” he said.

The Natchitoches Parish Sheriff’s Office Corrections Division is responsible for the custody and the safety of the pre-trial detainees housed at the detention center. Corrections Division staff work with the court to ensure that defendants are available and present for their remote access court appearances and can communicate privately with their defense attorney.

“Our focus is to stop the spread of the virus and mitigate its introduction into our facility. In addition to our stringent disinfecting of all areas and social distancing, we are limiting the movements of the inmates. By utilizing the remote court appearances, we can help this effort,” said Maj. Roger Henson, head of the NPSO Correction Division.

With the court system operating remotely, most in-person services have been modified or suspended. Persons seeking to visit the district attorney’s office are encouraged to email NPDA@10jda.org or call (318) 357-2214.

“The system is working. Even with all the precautions and modifications in place, justice is being served for the citizens of Natchitoches Parish,” Harrington said.