Email: Criminal court hearings may go entirely online to battle COVID-19

Cook County’s public defenders and prosecutors are pushing to have all criminal court hearings moved to an online format as soon as this week to fight the further spread of coronavirus. And, CWBChicago has learned, an entire Cook County special grand jury is in quarantine after a witness who testified before them last week tested positive for COVID-19.

Chief Judge Timothy Evans earlier this month said he would postpone most court cases for 30 days due to the pandemic.

But court clerks, sheriffs, and attorneys have said Evans’ move didn’t go nearly far enough. CWBChicago reported last week that defendants were sniffling, sneezing, coughing, and hacking their way through court hearings days after Evans’ order took effect. Court clerks at one courthouse walked off the job to protest their working conditions.

Going “virtual”

Online hearings have recently rolled out for daily bond court proceedings inside the Leighton Criminal Courthouse at 26th and California. A judge, the court clerk, prosecutors, and defendants’ attorneys are the only personnel in the courtroom, according to a source. Defendants appear via camera from jail and other court staffers work from other locations.

Now, there’s a push to have all criminal proceedings online by the end of this week, according to an email from the head of the county’s public defenders’ union.

Kevin Ochalla told fellow defenders Sunday that “the goal is to have all virtual courtrooms by the end of business [on Monday, Mar. 30].”

If the plan goes through, public defenders will have “hearings from home and very limited if any need to be in court,” Ochalla said.

Grand jury, clerks quarantined

A special grand jury that has been meeting at the Leighton Courthouse is now under in-home quarantine after a police officer who testified before them later tested positive for COVID-19, according to a source. The panel has been told it will not meet again until mid-May.

And, a source said, many court clerks assigned to the Rolling Meadows courthouse are on home quarantine for two weeks because a person tested positive for COVID-19 after they went to the suburban facility to conduct background checks.

Chief Judge Timothy Evans’ office did not respond to an email seeking comment about the special grand jury. Evans’ office has also not released any new updates about the spread of COVID-19 within the court system since Thursday.

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CWBChicago was created in 2013 by five residents of Wrigleyville and Boystown who had grown disheartened with inaccurate information that was being provided at local Community Policing (CAPS) meetings. Our coverage area has expanded since then to cover Lincoln Park, River North, The Loop, Uptown, and other North Side Areas. But our mission remains unchanged: To provide original public safety reporting with better context and greater detail than mainstream media outlets. Our editorial email address is news@cwbchicago.com