Judge Cathleen Brown Nichols’ courtroom would have been packed on Monday as she expected to hear 17 cases on the docket over about an hour.
But the coronavirus changed that, with all defendants appearing on a live video transmitted from the jail, no transporting deputies, only three lawyers present to represent clients, and zero victims or anyone from the public in the viewing gallery.
In one case, there was a not guilty plea from the family of a 6-year-old boy who police allege was killed after the family failed to feed him.
A grand jury has indicted Anthony Martinez, Elizabeth Archibeque and Ann Martinez on first degree murder, child abuse and kidnapping charges. The family appeared in the jail video feed huddled together in a small white room, despite calls for social distancing, to plead not guilty. The three inmates are each being held on a $3 million cash-only bond.
Coconino County Presiding Judge Dan Slayton enacted a new policy last week of delaying all non-mandatory hearings and requiring defendants and lawyers attend hearings via video or telephone when possible. Additionally, courts, law enforcement and the jail are trying to keep the court from being over capacity and threatened by COVID-19 by diverting non-violent offenders through out-of-court supervision.
Attorney Greg Parzych, legal defender Joseph Carver and public defender Roberta McVickers all told Brown Nichols they planned to file separate petitions to modify release conditions in the future. McVickers was acting on behalf of attorney Steve Harvey.
The Flagstaff Police Department found the boy dead March 2 after the grandmother called the police to report she thought her grandson had died. Police records show the family initially said the boy had stolen diet pills when asked about his size. One officer wrote the boy appeared underweight, and guessed he only weighed 30 pounds, which is below average.
The family later told authorities they kept the boy and his brother locked in a closet and did not give the boys enough to eat as “punishment” for stealing food.
Throughout the afternoon, Brown Nichols and the actors within the system had to get used to the new procedures.
She managed lawyers who dialed into hearings without speaking to their clients before the arraignment and had to wait for defendants to shuffle in and out of the video. On top of the time it took to manage the new court approach, she was also expected to uphold the rights of the accused and rights of the victim in each case.
In one case, a man who was accused of committing a burglary was allowed to be released on house arrest, despite being a high risk to recommit crimes and not appear before the judge.
Brown-Nichols released the man from jail in light of the order to keep non-violent offenders out of jail and away from the quarantined inmates. She considered both prosecuting and defense attorneys’ perspectives on topics like the man’s employment history, lack of previous felony convictions and current residence. She also allowed the attorneys to make any possible argument for why he should remain in jail before making a decision.
“The way you score I might not have not released you today, but under these circumstances we find ourselves in with the coronavirus, I am going to release you to pretrial services on house arrest,” Brown Nichols said. “You can only leave your residence for medical care.”
The judge told the man she could order a warrant for his arrest if he failed to comply with any court orders in his case. However, complying with court orders could lead to better plea offers from the prosecution and a potentially lower sentence in the future.
“This is your chance to show the court you can be law-abiding,” Brown Nichols said.
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