Victims’ families face agonizing choices during trials. Sen. Somers wants change.

March 25, 2022

Victims’ families face agonizing choices during trials. A CT lawmaker wants change.

(Norwich Bulletin)

A bill aimed at adding some structure to how soon a verdict is announced after a criminal trial has received support from relatives of murdered loved ones and victims’ advocate groups.

At least one person decried the “hostage” atmosphere engendered under the current rules.

“If someone set out to design a system to provoke symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, it might look very much like a court of law,” written testimony from Michele Voigt, co-founder of the Greenwich-based Violent Crime Survivors group, read. “There are occasions when the victims have left the courthouse and the verdict in the criminal proceedings is announced without the victim present.”

The state General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Judiciary held a public hearing earlier this month onSenate Bill 434, introduced by state Sen. Heather Somers, R-Griswold, in reaction to her experience attending a recent brutal triple-murder trial.

“An Act Concerning Court Processes Associated with the Announcement of a Verdict in Criminal Cases” calls for providing “sufficient advance notice” for victims and others to get to court after a jury has reached a verdict in a case.

Somers spent weeks in a New London Superior Court gallery late last year for the trial of Sergio Correa, a former Hartford man eventually convicted of slaughtering Griswold residents Kenneth, Janet and Matthew Lindquist in 2017.

A jury deliberated for two full days before finding Correa guilty of 13 of the 14 counts he faced. During that time, the victims’ families and friends, as well those supporting Correa, spent hours in the courthouse hallways or unused rooms, fearful of leaving the building and being unable to get back in time for the verdict announcement.

“Once a verdict is in, it’s up to the judge’s discretion on when to call the defendant in and read the verdict,” Somers testified.

Victims’ families use vacation time, struggle with childcare, long drives

Somers said many of those attending the Correa trial, including Eric Lindquist, whose parents and brother were killed, used up personal and vacation time to be present for the six-week trial. Others had to juggle child-care issues as they waited for a verdict.

Somers said the time it takes for a jury to reach a verdict can “vary wildly” depending on the case, making work and family planning difficult for stakeholders, many who live or work significant distances from a courthouse. In the Griswold case, attendees were told they had 20 minutes to be back in court after the jury finished its work.

Though the bill language does not specify a minimum time, Somers said giving family and supporters between 45 minutes to an hour to get back to a courthouse is a reasonable accommodation.

In her written testimony, State Victim Advocate Natasha Pierre said her office “fully supports” the proposal, noting jury deliberations can stretch for weeks depending on the complexities of a case.

“This time of deliberation can be daunting for crime victims and family members,” she wrote, stating the bill would allow individuals to escape the pressures of a courthouse environment and still be present for a verdict announcement.

In her submitted testimony, Jenn Lawlor said the planning required to attend the upcoming trial of a man accused of murdering her 25-year-old daughter, Emily Todd, in 2018 in Bridgeport has been overwhelming.

Lawlor said she’ll have to drive 45 minutes each day to attend the expected week-long trial while figuring out how to secure “reliable, supportive help” for her 1-year-old son in case of emergencies.

“I’m hoping you can imagine my reaction when I learned that my husband and I have, at best, a 15-minute window to return to be inside the courthouse once when have been contacted by a (state’s attorney) letting us know that a jury has reached a verdict,” she said.

Lawlor said geography will prevent her from going home during deliberations for fear of missing the verdict and she expects to spend hours either waiting in a court hallway or other nearby spaces.

“I could go on and on sharing with you what this feels like for us, but am hoping that you can decide for yourselves that something must be done to change the expectations of victims and/or their families for this part of the criminal justice process,” she wrote to committee members.

Voigt wrote the current system holds victims “hostage in courthouse hallways for countless hours and days.”

She noted criminal trials take place in court jurisdictions where a crime occurred –  “not where the victims reside or are employed.”

Some committee members, while supportive of aims of the proposed bill, said during the virtual hearing that more specific timeframe language might be needed.

I don’t know what that magic number is,” ranking committee member state Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, said. “But it strikes me we should be able to work with folks in the Judicial Branch to come up with a better, more predictable solution.”

State Sen. Gary Winfield, the Democratic committee co-chairman, said he and his colleagues take seriously the issues raised by Somers. He said a jury verdict can mark the moment justice is felt by victims or the “last time you see a family member free.”

“We will do our due diligence to make this happen, if possible,” he said.

Worries over delays to judicial process

Judicial Branch officials said while they take no position on policies advocated by the bill, they did have implementation concerns. They concede there is a “relatively short time” between a jury reaching a verdict and its announcement, but the bill, as written, could lead to “significant delays” in the process.

“This is particularly true when verdicts are reached at or near close of business, requiring essential court staff to remain after hours for an unknown extended period of time until the verdict is announced,” branch officials wrote.

Without clear guidance on what constitutes “sufficient time,” courts would have little or no discretion in verdict announcements, the branch wrote.

The actual reading of verdict can be a time-consuming process, especially if the defendant faces multiple charges, like in the Correa case. During those particular jury deliberations, trial attendees were told by 4:45 p.m.each day whether a verdict was expected.

The committee did not vote on the bill on Friday, but Somers said she was optimistic the bill would receive bipartisan support.

“I will always have a deep admiration of my friend Eric Lindquist’s determination and inner strength,” she said in a Tuesday email. “This bill, if it becomes law, will represent a small step forward for Eric and victims of violent crime throughout Connecticut. I would also be satisfied with a non-legislative solution. For example, the judicial branch could decide to make this a rule within their parameters, while underscoring the importance of giving both victims and defendants’ families time to be present at the verdict.”