Windsor·Exclusive

Windsor's first jury trial since COVID-19 spreads across 4 courtrooms

The first criminal jury trial in roughly 20 months is resuming Tuesday at Windsor's Superior Court of Justice, occupying four courtrooms that are reconfigured to meet public health guidelines.

Pandemic causes 20-month delay in resuming trials

In Windsor's first criminal jury trial since February, 2020, jurors will be seated where the public normally observed. Jury selection starts Oct 12, 2021 for a murder case. (Jason Viau/CBC)

The first criminal jury trial in roughly 20 months is resuming Tuesday at Windsor's Superior Court of Justice, occupying four courtrooms that are reconfigured to meet public health guidelines.

In the main courtroom of the homicide trial, jurors will sit in cushy office chairs, physically distanced, at the back where members of the public typically sit. The accused, Jitesh Bhogal, will be in a plexiglass box the jury normally occupies.

Another courtroom will be used solely for jury deliberations, while the remaining two will be for the public to watch on television screens that stream live from the main courtroom. Others can also request access to a virtual link to watch the proceedings as they happen.

Bhogal is facing charges of first-degree murder, aggravated sexual assault and break and enter in connection to the death of 31-year-old Autumn Taggart in June 2018. Police said her 9-year-old child was home at the time. Bhogal is a Canadian citizen, but living in Michigan at the time.

Jury selection is expected to begin Tuesday and evidence will begin to be heard starting Oct. 18. The trial is scheduled to take eight weeks.

The passage of time in this case exceeds what's known as the Jordan Framework, which came into effect in 2016 to address inherent delays in getting cases to trial within the Canadian justice system. It sets out a "presumptive ceiling" of 30 months for cases going to trial in Superior Court. It's taken more than 36 months for Bhogal's trial to commence, as he was arrested back in August, 2018.

"Everyone should be concerned about delayed justice. It is a critical access to justice issue."​​​​​- Danardo Jones, assistant law professor, University of Windsor

Delays caused by extreme circumstances, such as a global pandemic, need to be taken into account, according to Danardo Jones, assistant professor at the University of Windsor's Faculty of Law, who specializes in criminal law.

Danardo Jones is an assistant law professor at the University of Windsor. (University of Windsor)

Still, it doesn't negate the effects a delay in criminal proceedings can have on those involved, he said.

"Everyone should be concerned about delayed justice. It is a critical access to justice issue," said Jones. "While I understand that COVID is unexpected, it is nobody's fault, but we have to keep in mind there are still people that are caught up in the criminal justice system ..."

In criminal cases, the passage of time and delayed resolutions can also have deep implications for the victim, the victim's family and the community.

"If you can imagine not having the ability to close the chapter, if you can even do that, on such a heinous situation," said Jones. "For the community to have faith in the administration of justice."

Even for the accused waiting for a conclusion, Jones said there can be a psychological, financial and social burden hanging over their head as they're innocent until proven guilty.

The accused will be sitting behind plexiglass barriers in an area historically designated for jurors. (Jason Viau/CBC)

"Delayed justice is justice that's denied," he said. "Imagine living in a state of constant anxiety."

For local criminal defence lawyer Linda McCurdy, she's had clients affected by judicial delays caused by COVID-19. One of them was a migrant worker accused of a serious offence when his permit expired. But because of court delays due to COVID-19, he couldn't re-apply with the charge pending.

Linda McCurdy is a criminal defence lawyer in Windsor. (Facebook/Linda McCurdy)

"His matter went over and over and over and it got to the point where he wasn't able to healthcare," said McCurdy. "So there are ramifications for him with respect to how he is living here because of his status."

Since many cases have been taking place virtually, she's also noticed the formality of court has changed. McCurdy recalls some instances where people would get up for a drink or let their dog in during cross examination, for example.

"When you're in person you don't have witnesses who are laying in their beds, with their lights off, with their feet up while we're trying to cross examine," said McCurdy.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jason Viau is a video journalist, TV host and radio newsreader at CBC Windsor. He was born in North Bay, but has lived in Windsor for most of his life. Since graduating from St. Clair College, he's worked in print, TV and radio. Email him at jason.viau@cbc.ca

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