GREEN RIVER — For more than two months, nearly all district court hearings in Sweetwater County have been conducted by video conference.
Jury trials and most other in-person court proceedings in Wyoming were put on hold in mid-March when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived.
Restrictions are beginning to change, though. The Wyoming Supreme Court issued an order on Friday, July 24, that loosens some in-person restrictions and allows for the limited resumption of jury trials beginning Aug. 3. The order encourages the continued use of video or telephonic technology for most hearings through at least Oct. 5.
In order to have in-person proceedings not limited to certain circumstances, judges for each court can adopt a COVID-19 operating plan and submit it to the Wyoming Supreme Court in accordance with public health guidelines outlined in a document titled “Court Covid-19 Reopening Guidelines for Court Employees and Public Proceedings.”
The order states that no jury trial should be conducted before Oct. 5 unless a jury trial operating plan has been adopted by the relevant judges and submitted to both the county health officer, without objection, and to the Wyoming Supreme Court. The jury trial operating plan must generally conform to guidelines in the “District Court COVID-19 Reopening Committee’s Report and Guidance for Trial Courts.” The committee was appointed by the District Court Judges Conference. It developed the reopening guidelines for trial courts in conjunction with the Wyoming Supreme Court and State Public Health Officer Alexia Harrist.
In a press release about the Wyoming Supreme Court order, Chief Justice Michael K. Davis stressed that “citizen participation in jury trials is a critical component of our democracy.” Still, he recognized that jury duty differs from other types of gatherings.
“As the state of Wyoming begins to ease restrictions imposed to limit the spread of COVID-19, individuals may choose whether to go to a restaurant or engage in other activities that increase their exposure. They do not have a choice whether to appear when summoned for jury duty or subpoenaed to testify at trial; therefore, the Wyoming judiciary takes very seriously its responsibility to provide safe courthouses.”
Chief Justice Davis cautioned that jury trials will not be resumed immediately in all districts, and when they are resumed, they will not be conducted at the same rate as before the COVID-19 shutdown.
“Each jurisdiction differs in the court facilities available and the local rate of infection,” Davis said.
For example, some courtrooms are not large enough to allow for necessary social distancing. Most jury rooms are also small, so jury members may need to occupy a courtroom or other room for their deliberations.
“The district and circuit courts will have to take this slowly and carefully to ensure that they do not contribute to the spread of the infection,” Davis said.
Sweetwater County District Court has submitted a COVID-19 operating plan that does not include jury trials. It has been reviewed and approved by state and local health officials. The plan addresses scheduling, social distancing, hygiene, health screenings, at-risk individuals, required face coverings and cleaning schedules.
Trials for two high-profile criminal cases in Sweetwater County have been delayed during COVID-19 restrictions.
The first-degree murder trial for Christopher James Nielsen was originally scheduled for June 1. It is now set for Aug. 31. A first-degree murder charge was filed against Nielsen after a 5-year-old Green River boy died Nov. 28, 2019, from injuries allegedly received while in Nielsen’s care. Nielsen, 26, pleaded not guilty at his arraignment in Third District Court on Jan. 10. His bond was set at $1 million, and Nielsen remains in custody at the Sweetwater County Detention Center.
An attempted first-degree murder trial for Bradley Harvey Setzer was scheduled for May 11. It has been rescheduled for Oct. 13. Setzer, 40, was arrested Aug. 25 in Green River after he allegedly shot at his wife through their front door. His bond was set at $900,000, and Setzer remains in custody at the Sweetwater County Detention Center.
During the transition to more in-person proceedings, Sweetwater County District Court continues to conduct most court hearings by video conference.
The Sweetwater County district court weekly calendar of non-confidential hearings is posted at the district court entrance, at rocketminer.com, and on the Clerk of District Court’s website at https://www.sweet.wy.us/departments/clerk_of_district_court/index.php
Those who want to attend any non-confidential district court hearing conducted via video conference should submit an email to the court’s judicial assistant. The subject line should say “Request to participate,” and the email should include hearing information as well as the requesting person’s name and phone number.
The request to participate and required information should be submitted by noon two working days prior to the hearing. The court will then provide an electronic invitation to the conference and instructions about how to attend. Staff is unable to guarantee participation for requests received after the deadline. All hearings are subject to change.
— For matters before Judge Richard Lavery, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
— For matters before Judge Suzannah Robinson, email email@example.com.