by Caitlin Huston
Cass Superior II Judge Rick Maughmer is putting the responsibility for setting jury trials on lawyers due to issues caused by guilty pleas being entered shortly before the trial date.
Maughmer said lawyers will be responsible for setting the dates because often juries are being called, but not used, when plea agreements were filed close to the trial date. When guilty pleas are entered so close to the jury trials, lawyers and prosecutors say it’s harder to prepare and the court loses money.
To combat the problem of jury trials falling through, Maughmer said the court had previously decided to schedule multiple jury trials a day, so that the jury would be used in at least one of the cases.
However, Maughmer said this did not work as cases were resolved between final pretrial conferences and jury trials about 10 times in 2012.
“It’s been a process challenge,” Maughmer said.
While the court formerly provided a jury trial date early in the proceedings, Maughmer said he would only set a final pretrial conference and then wait for attorneys or prosecutors to request a trial date.
With the multiple jury trials scheduled on one day, Attorney Jim Brugh said attorneys would often spend time preparing for a trial, only to have it pushed to another day. That meant that attorneys would have to prepare for the same trial multiple times before it finally happened.
Attorney Matthew Barrett said having jury trials pushed to another day or canceled because of a plea agreement also creates problems for witnesses who have already scheduled the day off work or who have to travel long distances.
“It gets to be very chaotic for everybody,” Barrett said.
He added that the court also loses money by calling a jury, but not using it that day.
Brugh said he thinks the lawyers and prosecutors should have a definitive idea of whether the jury trial will go forward.
“I think that it’s reasonable for the judge to expect the lawyers to know in advance which cases will be tried,” Brugh said.
When the plea agreement is reached between the final pretrial conference and the jury trial date, Barrett said he believes it signals a problem with counsel in the case.
“It’s just procrastination I think and not appropriately handling the case,” Barrett said.
Cass County Prosecutor Kevin Enyeart said he believes plea agreements are filed shortly before jury trials because defendants don’t realize they want to plea guilty until that point.
“It might be on the eve of trial before they really decide they want to plead guilty,” Enyeart said.
Getting ready for multiple jury trials was also a large effort for the prosecutor’s office, as Enyeart said they have to send subpeonas, schedule out-of-state and expert witnesses, and prepare for all of the cases.
He said he believed Maughmer’s change would help them better prepare for trials.
“We are very happy that the judge is making this change,” Enyeart said.
While Barrett said he believed Maughmer’s procedure will help, he said he would also propose having the final pretrial conference as a deadline for plea agreements.
“It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” Barrett said.
Maughmer also said he believed the move would help his office keep trial schedules on track.
“It’s going to help me as far as scheduling is concerned,” Maughmer said.
Caitlin Huston is a staff reporter of the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at 574-732-5148 or firstname.lastname@example.org.