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Marathon County courts, jail deal with massive backlog in cases

Published: Apr. 12, 2021 at 6:35 PM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - Thirteen months into the pandemic, a backlog in court cases is piling up. Right now, many people sit in jail, victims wait for justice and prosecutors are overwhelmed by delays.

District Attorney of Marathon County Theresa Wetzsteon says she’s confident these are not low-level offenders sitting in jail. But officials say it’s still vital to keep the system moving like a well-oiled machine. That’s not happening because of the pandemic.

The Marathon County justice system is facing a difficult task—make sure courtrooms are safe while respecting a defendant’s right to a speedy trial.

“A lot of cases have been lingering, and we can’t get to resolution,” said Theresa Wetzsteon.

Until recently, no jury trials were allowed in the state because of a directive issued by the Wisconsin Supreme Court on March 22, 2020. Now, the district’s chief judge created a safety plan for one trial at a time.

“We have one courtroom that is able to have jury trials versus the five courtrooms that we previously had, pre-COVID. And jury selection is taking place offsite at Marathon Park,” explained Wetzsteon.

They’re able to conduct some of court over Zoom.

“Other court proceedings have been taking place, motion hearings, pre-trials, everything up to jury trials,” she said.

But changes and a long wait could change the outcome of a trial or get a case dismissed.

“A case can be pending for an amount of time that can prejudice the defendant. Whether it be the stress, anxiety, loss of evidence, maybe witnesses are no longer available. At some point, if a case is pending long enough, there could be a constitutional speedy trial issue,” Wetzsteon said.

She added that many factors are at play when weighing safety measures with a fair trial. She says even having witnesses wear masks could impact a jury’s perception of their emotions.

Right now, Wetzsteon has eight murder cases on her desk, each with a weeks-long trial planned for the future. She says they’ve never had that many pending before.

“It could take us years to get back to normalcy,” she said. “It does not feel good.”

There are also many lower-level cases that are still life-changing for victims that are sitting without a trial.

“Those cases need to get resolved and scheduled for trial. People have a right to a trial. If they want a trial, we’ve got to try to get them scheduled, but as far as priorities go, they may be a much lower priority,” she said.

Halting cases affects the Marathon County Jail. Jail Administrator Sandra La Du says they’re not meant to house people waiting for more than a year. Once people go through the court system, prison offers more opportunities.

“When someone goes to prison, they have the availability of more programming, they have the ability to do things like work and earn money,” she said.

Inmates deprived of those opportunities, or freedom if they’re acquitted, can mean worse behavior.

“We talk about the carrot and the stick. When they start to lose those carrots, there’s really no driver for good behavior, and then it increases the risk here,” La Du said.

La Du and Wetzsteon both noted existing issues with a backlog, even before the pandemic.

“This isn’t really anything new, but now it’s exacerbated by the pandemic,” said La Du.

Waiting years for a trial is nothing new, Wetzsteon said.

“I had one case that took 4 years to get to trial. Now you’ve added on automatically another year,” she said.

Marathon County is looking to open another courtroom to get more cases through. They expect in-person appearances to be back June 21, with a complete reopening tentatively planned for next fall.

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