Almost 8,000 people are behind bars in South Florida jails — many held over the last year because the COVID-19 pandemic halted all criminal jury trials.
Now the top judge in the Florida Supreme Court is saying criminal trials can happen over video conferencing platforms like Zoom to break through the log jam.
"To maintain judicial workflow to the maximum extent feasible, chief judges shall take all necessary steps to support the remote conduct of proceedings with use of technology," Chief Justice Charles Candady ordered recently.
The Broward County Jail is where Estinfil Filsmagre has been living since 6:22 p.m. on Oct. 9, 2019. He’s been there so long he’s had two birthdays while in jail.
“It’s certainly frustrating for them, their families and for me as well in not being able to get these cases to trial," said Filsmagre's attorney Richard Della Fera, who maintains his client his innocent.
The charge against Filsmarge is attempted murder. A man from his hospital bed told BSO Filsmarge was the one who stabbed him. The victim has also been waiting for justice -- it's been 17 months since he was stabbed.
“Clearly there’s been a back up of criminal jury trials," Della Fera said.
On Monday, Miami-Dade held its first civil trial using Zoom. On Tuesday, there were almost 3,500 inmates being held in Broward and almost 4,000 in Miami-Dade. Judge Nushin Sayfie will take over in a few months as the Chief Judge for the county.
“That’s really why we need to get our jury trials started again. The wheels of justice, as hard as it is right now, have to move forward," Sayfie said. "We’ve got defendants that are waiting for their day in court. We have victims who want closure on their cases. Obviously, since day one, we’ve all been really concerned about defendants' due process rights, particularly those that are in custody. So, early on we were doing everything we could to make sure people were not in custody without some good reason.”
But when it comes to criminal trials and lengthy prison sentences on the line, like what Filsmargre could get if he's convicted, there are reservations about deciding someone’s fate over Zoom.
“To do an effective cross-examination over a video platform I think is very difficult, if not impossible, and we have to consider jurors that are watching on video whether they are fully participating. So, that’s the concern that I have conducting a criminal trial remotely,” Della Fera said.
Before a remote trial could happen, the defendant, the prosecutors, and the judge have to agree to one.
The top judge in Broward, Jack Tuter, said Broward might see its first remote case in April, but there are still many details to be worked out.