COVID-19's Affect On Criminal Defense

Jun 25, 2020

Kalamazoo County's justice complex on Gull Road
Credit Andy Robins / WMUK

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected attorneys representing criminal defendants, including those who can't afford a lawyer.


Donna Innes is the chief attorney at Kalamazoo Defender. It represents indigent clients in Kalamazoo County, people who can't afford their own attorney.

"The biggest impact for us is the inability to see our clients in person, face-to-face, at the jail. We were also impacted by not being able to see our clients face-to-face while there was social distancing and individuals were staying at home."

Innes says the pandemic has meant that many trials and other court operations have ground to a halt.

"What's looming ahead is speedy trial violations because charges against state prisoners must be brought to trial within 180 days of that issuance."

Innes says some courts in Michigan probably won't resume jury trials until early 2021, although they may return in Kalamazoo County a bit sooner. Innes says disruption in court procedures could hurt her clients.

"The concern is that the courts will allow a break down in what defendants' rights are in terms of we have a right to confront the witnesses against us in open court."

But Innes says she's encouraged by a recent Michigan Supreme Court ruling. It said expert witnesses in criminal cases must testify in person.

"That was encouraging to us because clearly that decision was made during the time of COVID. They understood the impact that court rules could have but they stayed the course in protecting defendants' rights."

Innes also says the pandemic has exposed technological shortcomings in many courts around the state.