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Murder trials, other Oahu court cases with multiple defendants paused due to COVID-19

Prosecutions of homicide cases on Oahu — and trials involving multiple defendants — are not moving forward because of COVID-19 limits, Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald told a joint session of the state Legislature this morning.

“We simply cannot conduct as many jury trials as we could before the pandemic, particularly here on Oahu given the space limitations in our courtrooms,” Recktenwald said in his annual State of the Judiciary address. “With our current budget restraints, renting larger spaces is cost-prohibitive.”

Just on Oahu, Recktenwald said that 2,200 criminal jury trials are pending along with “many hundreds more on the neighbor islands.”

At the same time, Oahu’s District Courts have received over 60,000 criminal citations for violations of pandemic emergency orders. By comparison, there were only 20,000 criminal citations in First Circuit Court the year before.

“In our district civil courtrooms, we are facing a coming surge of residential eviction cases when the moratorium on evictions expires,” Recktenwald said.

“Indeed, the demand for our services will only increase as criminal trials return to full speed, emergency order citation cases make their way through the system, eviction matters resume and as other impacts of the pandemic, such as increases in domestic violence and sex trafficking become even more evident,” Recktenwald said.

He listed innovations last year that expanded access to judicial proceedings in response to in-person restrictions related to COVID-19.

Recktenwald said 13 jury trials have been completed on Oahu, in addition to one each on Maui and Hawaii island.

Recktenwald implored lawmakers and Gov. David Ige not to make additional cuts to the judiciary.

“While we know the road ahead is difficult, we respectfully request an operating budget that remains steady, with no increases but no further reductions and a capital improvements budget that allocates modest resources towards shovel-ready projects that will stimulate the economy and keep our buildings safe,” he said.

In response to Recktenwald’s address, House Speaker Scott Saiki said:

“Senate President (Ron) Kouchi and I know that you, Chief Justice and the entire Judiciary team, have been under considerable pressure to adapt to pandemic conditions. We appreciate your work and the work of the entire Judiciary team, all of the judges and all of the employees for your commitment and hard work over the past year.”

“The Legislature has the utmost respect for Chief Justice Recktenwald,” Saiki said. “We have seen him work throughout this pandemic. We know that he is an honorable judge and leader of the Judiciary and we look forward to working with him and his team throughout this pandemic and going forward.”

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