Court-related reform part of state Sen. Somers’ priority list

February 5, 2022

After sitting in on brutal Griswold triple murder trial, Sen. Somers turns to court reform

Norwich Bulletin 

For weeks late last year, state Sen. Heather Somers sat in the gallery of a New London courtroom as the details of a brutal Griswold triple murder case played out.

“I’d been to trials before, but this was the first criminal murder trial I’d attended,” she said on Friday. “It was 100% an eye-opening learning experience, sitting there with the victims’ family and learning the nuances on how a courtroom operates.”

Somers’ 18th District includes the town where three members of the Lindquist family – Kenneth, Janet and Matthew –  were killed in 2017. Since the trial ended in December with the conviction of Hartford resident Sergio Correa, she’s been working on several court-related reform initiatives she hopes will eventually be raised in committee.

Somers has compiled a list of priority issues as part of a larger discussion package, including several that grew out of her attendance last year at Correa’s New London Superior Court trial.

Better technology in courthouses

One of the most glaring early issues during the trial revolved around sound. The microphones in the court, like in many others across the state, are in place not for amplification, but so a court reporter can hear and transcribe testimony during a proceeding.

“This was a big moment for the families who attended the trial, one they’d waited four years for and it was very difficult at first to hear the witnesses,” the Republican senator said. “The judge had to constantly ask witnesses to speak up.”

The audio issue was somewhat resolved with the addition of different microphones, though many trial attendees still spent time with their necks craned forward trying to catch the back-and forth between lawyers and witnesses.

Somers said any introduction of new equipment into a courtroom needs to be balanced with the needs of the users.

“For example, there was a time during the trial when an older overhead projector was used to display evidence on a screen,” she said. “Those images were very hard to see (in the gallery), but I was told that’s the technology the prosecutors were comfortable with and they did not want to try something new during such an important trial.”

Somers said a $500,000 line item was included in last year’s state budget to upgrade the audio technology in courthouses.

“I want to make sure those kinds of upgrades are available to courts if they want them so they are as well-equipped as they can be,” she said.

Caring for victims’ families

Somers said in many ways the Huntington Street courthouse – specifically its in-house cadre of victims’ advocate personnel – is a model for how other facilities should operate.

“I was so impressed by the depth of caring those victim advocates showed and how they served as a conduit to victims by explaining what was going on,” she said. “That court had a separate area in another part of the building where the victims’ families and friends could gather without having to just wait in their cars, something not all courthouses have.”

Somers said she’d also like to see a change in jury verdict notifications. Jury members in Correa’s case deliberated for two full days in December before rendering a verdict. During that time, attendees stuck close to the courthouse after being informed they’d only have about 20 minutes from when the jury alerted the judge that they’d reached a decision to court being reconvened.

“Right now, it’s up to a judge to decide how long people have to get back to court so they can hear a verdict – I saw one person running in worried she’d miss the verdict in New London,” Somers said. “There needs to be a minimum time, like 45 minutes or an hour put in place so family members of the victims and the accused – many who have to take time off  work to attend –  don’t have to spend all their time waiting at court for a verdict.”

Somers said she’s also looking into a blanket allowance for “comfort” dogs to be allowed in all state courts and in some cases inside a courtroom for younger victims, something she said other states already allow.

Bigger criminal justice issues at play

Eric Lindquist, whose mother, father and brother were slaughtered by Correa, said while issues involving sound and other technology did upset him during the trial, he’s focused on larger criminal justice issues he hopes will be addressed by lawmakers.

“In the moment, when you’re sitting in a court, things like not being able to hear or see something can seem like a big deal, but it pales in comparison to larger criminal justice policies, like how could (Correa) have even been out on the street in the first place?” he said. “My plan is to invest time in the next year by having conversations with interested lawmakers with the hope of bringing these issues forward in the 2023 session.”

Lindquist said he’s encouraging any lawmaker looking to institute criminal justice reform to attend a criminal proceeding from start to finish.

“Not just drop in for a day or two,” he said. “There needs to be an investment of time.”