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‘It’s a systemic breakdown’: With jury trials suspended, an unprecedented backlog snowballs

Dave Winn's employment discrimination case was ready and set for trial in March 2020 but Covid-19 stymied that trial date. It would take 17 months and five trial dates before the case would make it before a jury in Middlesex Superior Court.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Dave Winn can do anything on his two prosthetic legs that “anybody can do on two good legs,” including work as a security guard. He’s equally skilled in his wheelchair, the 66-year-old from Norton said.

While burning trash as a 12-year-old, Winn suffered severe injuries that resulted in his legs being amputated below the knees. Decades of wheelchair use taught him how to handle curbs and stairs and other obstacles.

“You name it, I did it. I can do anything in my chair that anybody can do on two legs,” Winn said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

Winn’s former employer, Madison Security Group Inc., disagreed and fired him from his job guarding an abandoned state hospital in Medfield in 2014 after he underwent surgery that required rehabilitation in a wheelchair.

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Winn, certain that he could perform his duties in the chair, answered in 2016 with an employment discrimination lawsuit and won in Middlesex Superior Court in late October.

Winn is one of the lucky few to make it to trial since COVID-19 struck. The pandemic has spurred stop-and-go pauses in trials and caused courthouse closures over the past two years, creating an epic backlog of trial-ready cases in the Massachusetts Trial Courts.

Worsening the situation, jury trials in Massachusetts courthouses are newly on hold for the month of January amid a winter surge in COVID-19 cases.

Defense lawyers in civil and criminal courts who had trial dates set for January are seeing them rescheduled for April with little hope that they’ll go to trial then, or even this year.

“This is injustice, to be honest with you,” said criminal defense lawyer George Papachristos.

Papachristos averages five trials a year, he said, but has had just one since spring 2020. He said he has at least two dozen cases ready for trial now but with no realistic trial dates in sight and clients who are “presumed innocent” languishing in jail. “It’s a mess.”

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Dan Maloney, a criminal defense lawyer with an office in Braintree, has been a lawyer since 1993 and says the current state of the trial courts “is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.”

“The system is just overwhelmed, and it wasn’t an efficient system to begin with,” Maloney said.

Maloney said he has about 75 cases, ranging from operating under the influence to shootings and drug trafficking, that are ready now for trial — and another 50 that should be.

“Right now, we’re just moving cases and getting dates and not doing anything substantive at all,” Maloney said.

The Office of the Trial Court could not provide backlog numbers. In a statement, it said multiple cases were tried between September and Dec. 31 and “that is expected to continue when jury trials resume.”

The “overwhelming majority” of Superior Court cases “are normally resolved without a trial, and of those that will be tried, only a fraction of the total pending caseload is ready for trial at any particular time,” the statement said.

“Barring a further pause ordered by the Supreme Judicial Court, jury trials are scheduled to resume on Jan. 31, and trials that were continued due to the pause are currently being rescheduled,” the office’s statement said.

Winn’s employment discrimination case was ready and set for trial in March 2020, but the onset of the pandemic canceled that date and five subsequent dates.

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In the interim, Winn put off shoulder and back surgeries and financial decisions, thinking his trial was imminent and not wanting to be responsible for any postponements. Winn said he lost count of how many trial dates he psyched himself up for before his case went before a Middlesex County jury on Oct. 25.

“I was at the point where I just didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I was giving up hope.”

But after a five-day trial in October, a jury awarded Winn $7,688 in back pay for his $10-an-hour part-time job, as well as $300,000 in punitive damages and $169,520 in attorney’s fees, according to a jury verdict form.

Yet, with the case now on appeal, Winn, who was laid off from his most recent job last April, won’t be seeing a much-needed payday any time soon.

“I had financial decisions coming up that I absolutely had to make. I had a lot going on with the house,” Winn said. “Now I can’t make the payments. I’m in debt up over my ears, and I’m having a lot of issues.”

A trial is a major life event, said Winn’s lawyer, John T. Martin.

“Trials are scary events. They’re very stressful,” Martin said. “You’re really putting yourself out there to be judged by a jury of your peers, and it takes a lot of emotional strength and wherewithal to go through that.”

When trials do resume, criminal cases in which the defendant is behind bars will take precedence, further setting back the civil courts.

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“The big kind of life-changing cases, wrongful deaths, catastrophic injuries, serious sexual harassment, serious discrimination cases, those types of things, where people’s lives and livelihoods are on the line and hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars are on the line, those are completely halted,” Martin said.

Lack of trials affects settlements in civil cases and plea deals in criminal cases, as both rely on the leverage of a trial date.

“Ninety percent of cases settle once there’s a firm trial date, and that’s etched in stone,” Martin said.

Amid a shortage of lawyers who could handle murder cases, the Committee for Public Counsel Services has issued an urgent call for “highly qualified attorneys to accept assignments in murder cases.”

The office, which handles court-appointed cases, chalked up the emergency shortage to “the complete cessation of criminal jury trials following the COVID19 pandemic.”

CPCS chief counsel Anthony Benedetti said in a Thursday statement that clients are seeing “cases hanging over their heads longer than usual” and the “unprecedented backlog” is testing the system.

“Our attorneys, investigators and social workers are seeing their caseloads increase as new cases stack on top of the existing backlog,” Benedetti said. “That puts stress on the entire system of public defense, and the trickle-down effect always lands at the feet of the client.”

Suffolk County District Attorney Kevin R. Hayden also lamented the clogged trial system but said he understood the need to ensure public health that had prompted the decision to suspend trials.

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“The unfortunate result is that fewer cases have been resolved over the past two years even as new cases arise,” Hayden said. “Victims’ lives have been put on hold, as have the lives of those facing charges, and caseloads for prosecutors and victim witness advocates have increased.”

John Morris, a private criminal defense lawyer in Essex County, said he’s been fired from at least 25 cases in the last couple years because he couldn’t get them to trial.

“They want to get it over with, so I understand their frustration, but the other guy down the road isn’t going to get them a trial any quicker,” Morris said. “It’s a systemic breakdown.”


Tonya Alanez can be reached at tonya.alanez@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @talanez.