Seattle downtown courthouse security concerns keep jurors away, judges say

Crime and public safety concerns around the King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle are forcing potential jurors to refuse to serve, making it more difficult to recruit juries, several judges said on Wednesday. of King County.

Public safety concerns around the downtown courthouse, the county’s seat of government, worsened for years, but were exacerbated during the pandemic as downtown office workers largely remained home and encampments in the area have proliferated.

“The number of comments we receive from prospective jurors indicating that they are unwilling to serve as jurors in our trials is of particular concern to us,” said Patrick Oishi, King County Superior Court judge. , deputy president of the tribunal. Jurors and witnesses, Oishi noted, must appear in court.

“A lot of these people who absolutely have to go to court or have to come to court cannot safely access the court, or at least they don’t think it is safe to come to the courthouse.” , Oishi said. a committee of the King County Metropolitan Council.

Oishi said anxiety was particularly high among people at the courthouse in recent weeks, since a man was accused of sexually assaulting a woman in a courthouse bathroom in late July.

King County District Court; which handles civil suits, misdemeanors and felony pre-trial hearings, has 10 locations across the county, only one of which is in the downtown Seattle courthouse.

“We have no difficulty finding jurors in other places,” said District Court Judge Susan Mahoney, chief chairman of the court. “In fact, they’ll contact us and say, ‘Can I serve somewhere else? “”

The jury function is not optional if you receive an invitation. And although judges have the option of imposing a sanction, up to and including issuing an arrest warrant, for jurors who withdraw, they rarely, if ever, do so.

Instead, they try to nudge and cuddle and put potential jurors at ease.

“It’s part holding hands, part encouraging, part just listening to expressions of fear, part trying to clarify how safe they might feel,” Superior Court Judge Sean O ‘said. Donnell, chief criminal justice of the court. “If they don’t come, the system collapses; because no jury, no justice.

Security issues at the courthouse go back years. In 2019, a judge ordered the entrance to Third Avenue of the courthouse to be closed for safety and security reasons. The county council then approved emergency funding of $ 600,000 for sheriff’s deputies to provide security outside the courthouse, even though downtown streets fall under the jurisdiction of the Seattle police.

Seattle recently cleared up a large homeless camp in nearby City Hall grounds after 33 judges wrote to the city’s parks director calling for it to be closed.

The park remains closed for cleaning, fenced for public use.

“Once opened, what will prevent the scenario from reverting to the status quo, because it’s an easy place to pitch tents and for people to take shelter?” Said O’Donnell.

The city has set Oct. 12 as the target date for the park to reopen, said Rachel Schulkin, a spokeswoman for the parks department. The teams will perform rodent control this week, reseed the grass next week and then pressure clean the park, Schulkin said.

“We will know as October 12 approaches whether the park will be ready to reopen on that date,” Schulkin wrote.

The county council, after a fatal stab in the park earlier this summer, considered condemning the park or gaining control of the city, potentially through a land swap or other ways.

County officials expressed concern about the park’s future on Wednesday, while acknowledging it was not a new issue.

Judges said they spoke to Seattle Police who basically told them they were unlikely to intervene in the area unless there were pressing crime or safety concerns.

“Without a police presence or law enforcement, people will come back quickly and we will be back to where we were,” Mahoney said. “I would hate to see this job canceled. “