Jury trials have been temporarily suspended at Rabinowitz Courthouse as a result of high, borough-wide Covid-19 infection rates.
The order suspending jury trials was issued Sept. 27 by Presiding Judge Terrance Haas, citing hospital staffing shortages and a 17.4% seven-day positivity rate in Fairbanks. Although the order is set to expire Oct. 25, Haas said the suspension will likely be extended through November given the borough’s current rate of infection.
“If the numbers were to drop precipitously between now and then, trials would start up,” he said. “My intuition is that those numbers are not dropping fast enough for us to be likely to open trials at the beginning of November.”
As of Tuesday, the Fairbanks North Star Borough reported 610.3 Covid-19 cases per 100,000 population in the last seven days, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Human Services. The national average reported in the last seven days was 187 infections per 100,000 people, according to Rutgers Covid-19 tracker.
The proceedings put on hold as a result of the suspension include the trial of Stephany LaFountain, 26, charged with two counts of first-degree murder and four counts of second-degree murder in connection with the 2015 and 2017 deaths of her two young daughters.
LaFountain’s trial, originally set to begin in November, was rescheduled Monday for March 21, 2022.
During Monday’s hearing, Fairbanks prosecutor Elizabeth Crail said the state had significant concerns going forward with a November trial date given the variability of infection rates and uncertainty surrounding the court’s jury trial suspension order.
“If the numbers remain high we do have concerns about one or more necessary participants potentially coming up positive or being exposed and that putting a delay of who knows how long right in the middle of trial either causing a mistrial or otherwise,” she said.
“Since we’re not getting word on when trials restart typically until approximately a week ahead of time, given the complexity of this case it would be an extreme hardship to do all the preparation which has to be done ... only to have the plug pulled essentially a few days before trial potentially,” Crail added.
Representatives from the victim’s family expressed their disappointment around the decision to postpone LaFountain’s trial to a later date.
“Just very disappointed but I do understand the circumstances and obviously the health of the community and everything else, I understand,” said an unnamed victim relative during Monday’s hearing.
Judge Haas emphasized that while some defendants like LaFountain are affected by the suspension, the majority of cases settle before trial.
“On average the court system tries a pretty small number of criminal cases to a jury,” he explained. “The court system is open for business, we’re still processing cases, we’re still taking changes of plea, we’re still sentencing people and we’re still doing all the child welfare and domestic relations, all that stuff is still happening.”
“We are very concerned about being able to safely bring groups of people into the courthouse to engage in that very important democratic function of a jury trial, so we’re gonna do that the minute it’s safe to do it,” Haas said.