Bay Area courts face enormous backlog of cases, while defendants await justice

David Martell and his daughter.

All but one of the Bay Area court systems now have jury trials back in court, after most paused regular court functions during the winter COVID-19 surges.

Now the courts are up against an enormous backlog of cases, straining resources and delaying justice for many. Contra Costa County is the only court system that will reopen two weeks later on March 1. 

"He's been in jail since she was 3 months old," said Katrina Martell, whose husband, David has been behind bars for nine years. "So she's kind of grown up with her father in the system." 

It was Valentine's Day last year when everything changed for the Martell family.

That's when a new law in California had come into effect, SB1437, and David Martell was told there was a chance he could see his second-degree murder charges be dropped or reduced, based on lack of evidence.

"It was extremely exciting. I really thought I lost him," Katrina Martell said. "Fifteen years to life, there was no telling if he'd ever come home. And with this new law, I actually have a chance to have my family back together."

But then the pandemic exploded, Santa Clara County courts closed that spring, and Martell's resentencing hearing got pushed again and again.

"Usually, this whole process should only take 60 days. And it's been over a year already," Katrina Martell said, as they must wait another 90 days for her husband's resentencing hearing.

Courts partially closed in Santa Clara County multiple times as COVID-19 cases surged, creating a backlog of pending jury trials. Santa Clara County currently has 398 people awaiting their day in criminal court.

"There aren't enough courtrooms. There aren't enough judges, there aren't enough staff or jurors to really get these cases to trial," said retired Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge LaDoris Cordell. "We have to balance the defendant's right to a trial, the people's right to have these cases go forward, and we have to balance that with the health risk of living in pandemic. That's the balance we have to strike."

The pandemic has also created a $16-million deficit that Santa Clara County Superior Court is climbing its way out of thanks to relief funds approved by the state. As a result, employee layoffs and furloughs were announced in November, contributing to slowing down proceedings for both criminal and civil cases.

With some trials potentially years away in the backlog, Cordell worries people might feel pressured to settle outside of court, even if it's not in their best interest.

"I think one likely outcome of this is you're going to see plea bargaining, which has always been here, but you're going to see it on steroids," Cordell said. "You're going to see prosecutors offering all kinds of deals. You're going to see defense attorneys asking for all kinds of deals for their clients in order to keep the system from just completely imploding."

Santa Clara County's deputy public defender, Deedrea Edgar, discourages most of her clients from taking a plea deal. But the longer they wait for a trial, and with many still incarcerated, their public health and safety are on the line. 

"A lot of families are struggling during this waiting time," Edgar said. "What are the conditions in the jail? What is the health situation of their loved ones pending the outturn of the court?"

David Martell's family had those same concerns when there was a COVID-19 outbreak at the Santa Clara County jail, and he got sick.

"He sounded like he was not eating a lot, and then he was tired a lot, and he didn't feel good," said Monica Martell, his 9-year-old daughter.

David Martell's health is mostly back to normal. Now he and his family are holding their breath it stays that way as they continue to wait for his pending resentencing hearing. 

Health and safety concerns are also worrying prospective jurors. Many won't feel safe reporting in-person until the pandemic is over, even with plexiglass partitions, masks, and social distancing in place.

Last month, a juror serving in an Alameda County murder trial was replaced with an alternate just before closing arguments because she had come in contact with someone outside of court who tested positive for COVID-19.

For the Martell family, resuming normal court procedures can't come a moment too soon. 

"I've waited nine years for my husband to come home," Katrina Martell said. "And it scares me to death that I may lose him to COVID here in San Jose."