By Julietta Bisharyan
SACRAMENTO – With the switch to virtual courtrooms, the Sacramento County Superior Court has been releasing more incarcerated people amid the coronavirus pandemic in an attempt to keep the county jails emptier in case COVID-19 gets loose in them.
“Is it okay if we hold this hearing over the TV like this?” was Judge Steven Gevercer’s greeting to each new defendant who appeared for arraignment on the Zoom live stream, standing in a cage across the counsel table in an otherwise empty courtroom. The judge and prosecutor appeared on the chat from separate locations.
All responded yes, sometimes facing the wrong screen, before being redirected to the front camera by the defense attorney. Many of them took a minute to answer.
During the three-hour live stream in Department 62, about 20 defendants were attended to in hearings that lasted on average three minutes each. Every so often, the bailiff would spray the cage with disinfectant spray in attempts to reduce any risk of spreading the virus.
“Can you please speak up?” was thrown out at least once during each hearing by the judge. The masks worn by the defense attorney and bailiffs, though useful for safety measures, muffled their voices during the hearings.
“It sounds like you’re stuck in a fish tank, DA,” joked the judge.
To complicate matters more, a Russian interpreter was phoned in during one defendant’s hearing. The bailiff had to hold the phone up to the judge’s screen, and then return it to the defendant for content translation.
Most, if not all, defendants, as determined by the judge, were released on their own recognizance (OR), a written promise signed by the defendant promising that they will show up for future court appearances and not engage in illegal activity while out.
“Call the probation office within 48 hours of your release, and just stay out of trouble,” were the repeated instructions given by the Judge.
Release on OR was given to defendants charged with both misdemeanor and felony counts, given that they were non-violent, as suggested by Deputy District Attorney Cody Winchester (the only one with a visible nameplate).
All but one arraignment were scheduled for June 15 at 8:30 am. At one point, the judge suggested they pick a different date since the arraignments were beginning to pile up. Still, the brevity of this afternoon’s hearings will most likely translate into the morning of June 15.
One defendant was charged for attempting to assault his wife with a pair of scissors. His felony charge, as explained by the judge, put him at risk for deportation or denial of US citizenship. However, given the current circumstances with the virus, chances of deportation may be more unlikely.
Last month, the Guatemalan government said it would stop accepting deportees from the United States until it implemented safety measures to prevent the virus from spreading to the rest of the population. Meanwhile, Honduran airports have been closed to international traffic, including deportation flights from the United States, despite not formally stopping the acceptance of deportees.
As a result, the defendant’s fate may still be up in the air.
Despite the speed of each hearing, Department 62 was the last to close that day.
“Last one, fellas,” said the judge as the bailiff let in the final defendant. “Did we get the sloth today?”
To sign up for our new newsletter – Everyday Injustice – https://tinyurl.com/yyultcf9