Court system unfolds
Lawyers, judges balance timeliness, fairness in court cases
Editor’s note: This is the second in a four-part series looking into the criminal justice system in Albert Lea and Freeborn County.
On Thursday morning, Freeborn County District Court Judge Steven Schwab was scheduled to oversee 43 cases. Last Friday, District Court Judge Ross Leuning oversaw 43 cases during the morning hours alone.
Despite a substantial backlog in cases and pressure to resolve cases efficiently, the judges, Freeborn County Attorney David Walker and public defender Grant Sanders said their priorities are ensuring defendants and victims are treated fairly during court proceedings.
After charges have been filed, defendants have a first appearance in court, during which a judge reads them their rights. The accused can have the charges read aloud to them in court, and each defendant is informed of the right to a jury trial.
“The judge will tell him what the charges (are) against them and then decide what the conditions of release or bail will be,” Walker said.
Judges receive bail studies that outline the defendant’s history, criminal history, any prior failure to appears, public safety concerns and any issues relating to fleeing. The studies include recommendations for conditional bail — bail with release requirements — and unconditional bail.
“You’re looking at prior history, severity of the crime, public safety issue,” Schwab said. “You kind of blend it all together to come up with the numbers.”
Leuning said judges must balance public safety and the rights of the defendant when setting bail amounts. Bail amounts are one issue where the judges sometimes differ from lawyers.
“It’s important that we keep our focus narrow, because so far it’s innocent until proven guilty, and so we have to be careful not to make this pre-conviction punishment,” Leuning said. “We just want to set the bare minimum required to make sure they show up for court and make sure that the public is safe.
“That’s sometimes a hard call, but you get a feel for it having done it for several years. You get an idea of what’s going to work and what’s not.”
Schwab said he mainly follows bail recommendations and generally knows defendants based on previous encounters with the court system.
“I generally follow the bail recommendations, but I also draw upon my own experience and observations in court, too,” he said.
Leuning said lawyers sometimes “want to do things one way and the court can decide, ‘no, we want to do it a different way, a more efficient way or a more fair way depending on the circumstance. It’s our job to run the courtroom and make sure everything goes properly, smoothly and fairly and instruct the jury.”
At a second appearance — a rule 8 appearance — the defendant can file motions challenging evidence. It is also typically the first time a defendant appears in court with a lawyer.
“It’s a good way to encourage the parties to share information, to complete discovery,” Walker said.
By the second appearance, defendants are presented a copy of an investigative report on the case along with any pictures or photographic copies.
Defendants sometimes enter not guilty or guilty pleas during the hearing, after which settlement conferences, pre-trial and jury trial dates are given. If a guilty plea is entered, a sentencing date is announced.
If a defendant is challenging evidence, an omnibus hearing is scheduled, during which the defense files written motions with the court that challenge evidence it believes was not properly obtained. Witnesses sometimes testify under oath during the hearing.
Schwab and Leuning said they are guided by case laws and rules on such cases.
“You have to make sure the police did their job in their proper order and that it didn’t exceed what they can do,” Schwab said. “As long as the police acted within their guidelines, the evidence for the most part is going to come in. If the police did not act within their guidelines, we might exclude some evidence.”
Leuning compared his role to being an umpire in a baseball game.
“I just call the balls and strikes,” he said. “I root for neither side, and that’s the way we have to make these decisions. We just apply the law as it’s written or as it’s interpreted by our appellate courts.”
At a settlement conference, prosecutors and the defense meet to discuss the possibility of a plea agreement in the case.
“Often the plea agreements have already been made, so the settlement conference is a good time to appear before the court and actually enter a plea,” Walker said.
Pre-trial hearings take place four days before a trial starts. At the hearing, issues relating to the upcoming trial are discussed, which could include requests to limit evidence or to keep the state from making references to a defendant’s prior conviction.
Judges oversee system to protect fairness
Leuning said “judges are gatekeepers, because any felony or gross misdemeanor complaints have to be reviewed by us to make sure there is probable cause to go forward, and if there’s not, then we can deny it.”
To Leuning, judges also have a responsibility to ensure defendants are treated fairly.
“We make sure that everything is done fairly and properly, and we also have to bear in mind that the state has a lot of power and a lot of finances, funding, so we make sure that any individual citizen is going to be treated fairly and the system doesn’t overwhelm them simply because don’t have the finances,” he said.
To Leuning, judges also have a responsibility to keep the court process flowing.
“It’s really about keeping cases moving,” he said. “The most important thing to us is a proper outcome, a fair and just outcome, so we would never swap that for just getting something done.
“Ideally we would be both fair and efficient, but if you’ve gotta go with one, fair is the one we go with.”
Schwab has been a judge in Freeborn County since August 2008, while Leuning has been one since 2011.
Prior to being judges, Leuning practiced law for 25 years in Owatonna and Rochester and was an active-duty Navy lawyer for six years. Schwab served as Albert Lea city attorney for about 20 years.
Both judges said their experiences help them in their positions.
“It would be reckless for someone to take the bench without having practiced law for a long time,” Leuning said.
“I think every one of the my 25 years of practice have come in use while I’m on the bench. I learned a lot in those 25 years and practicing in a lot of different courts.”
Both judges struggle with large caseloads in the 11-county Third Judicial Circuit, and there are days when they see more than 40 cases.
“Those are the days you kind of get a little bit worn out by the time you get done with that many cases, when you run that many people through and try to do it in an appropriate manner, give them enough time,” Schwab said.
“It’s hard to do the balance, but … it’s important that everyone gets their necessary time,” Leuning said. “Speed is less important than fairness.”
Jury trials span multiple days, veins of the court system
On the first day of a jury trial, a pool of individuals much larger than the number of jurors are assembled. Twenty to 21 are selected, and that number is later whittled down to 12 jurors or 13 with an alternate. Selecting a jury has been known to take a couple hours to a couple weeks depending on the case.
After the jury is selected, opening statements are made.
“The opening statement is each party’s opportunity to tell the jury what they think the case is going to prove, what the evidence will be,” Walker said. “You’re not supposed to argue the case, you’re supposed to tell the jury what you think the evidence will be.”
The state’s witnesses during a trial are identified in a police report. An investigative report normally lists the people who were involved in the incident.
Walker said he sometimes needs expert witnesses to testify, such as forensic pathologists, forensic scientists, police officers and other professionals.
“The prosecutor chooses the witnesses for the case, and it starts with the investigative report and then it continues with your analysis of the case,” he said. “So I have to decide what I think I have to prove and then choose witnesses accordingly.”
Lawyers are able to offer exhibits into evidence once the admissibility, relevance, foundation, and authenticity of an item is established, Walker said.
Though an opposing lawyer can object to the exhibit, “it’s pretty rare” for judges to reject it, he said.
Once the state and defense conclude testimony, the trial enters the final argument phase.
“The idea is then to explain to the jury how it is that your evidence has proven that this defendant is guilty of what he’s charged with,” Walker said.
Preparing for cases
Sanders, a public defender in Freeborn County, said he has between 80 and 100 clients and about 150 cases.
“I prioritize,” he said. “I look at what’s coming forward, and I focus heavily on the cases that are coming forward, and then there’s kind of a stack that’s in process, so that means I need to review police reports.
“I need to make omnibus decisions, so there’s kind of a timeline there as well.”
Sanders’ approach to cases varies on circumstances, and sometimes he hires an expert to help him assist his client with issues that are not in his focus area.
“I have developed a feel for evaluating people in terms of whether or not they need treatment, but I am not licensed to do that,” he said. “And so perhaps I need somebody who can do that.”
In sexual offenses, Sanders sometimes has his clients undergo psychosexual evaluations — specialized clinical assessments of adult and juvenile sex offenders — to help him represent them.
Sanders, who needs the permission of his client to make a plea offer to the state, typically relies on the prosecutor to take the first step to settle it.
“My practice is, I want the state to make me an offer first, because my experience in other counties is if you make a suggestion, that becomes the floor, and I don’t feel that ever should be the floor.
“Just like their offer to me is kind of an opening offer, likewise, if I were to make a proposal with client permission, I wouldn’t want that to the lowest level the prosecutor would be willing to go to.”
Walker said the approach he takes in cases varies depending on the severity and other details of the case.
“As soon as you receive that investigative report, you have to evaluate the strength of the evidence and decide on what needs to be addressed,” he said. “Is the evidence too weak in certain areas? The evidence can be strong enough for charges, but it may need further follow-up to ensure that a person’s properly charged or appropriately charged.”
The charging process can involve research into case law, state statutes, interviewing potential witnesses and receiving victim input, which is typically done by the County Attorney’s Office victim witness coordinator.
Amending criminal complaints and filing motions must be approved by the court.
The Attorney’s Office has four prosecutors, Karen Sackis Lunn, Abigail Lambert, Jennifer Clements and Walker. They help spread the caseload, but sometimes there have been around 20 cases assigned to one lawyer.
Walker said cases must be prioritized based on how likely it is to progress, the likely jury trial date and how the long the case has been pending.
“You have to prioritize those cases to figure out which case on this occasion requires your primary focus,” he said.
Walker said though prosecutors are faced with a bevy of cases, defense lawyers also struggle with caseloads.
“I think it explains why we have so many plea agreements in cases,” he said. “We try to resolve cases in a way that is fair and reasonable for both sides.”
Sanders said the amount of hours he spends in each case varies.
“Some cases need a lot of attention, other cases don’t need as much attention,” he said. “And cases that go to trial need a significant amount of attention because you want to prepare yourself as much as you can for every contingency.”
“Some of my clients do want to resolve cases, but it takes two parties to make an agreement.”
Sanders develops the argument he will make in court for his client and said voir-dire — preliminary examination of a witness or a juror by a judge or counsel — is essential.
“You build your case in voir-dire,” he said. “You want to think about what your biggest danger point is in the case and you want to talk to the jury about that.”
“I generally don’t want to exclude jurors. I want to include them. But that’s a different process than I think a lot of lawyers use.”
Sanders said the success of a lawyer should not be based on the person’s win-loss record at jury trials, adding though private lawyers can choose their clients, public defenders must take on cases.
“As a public defender, sometimes you might not want to go to trial, but you understand that you’re protecting people’s constitutional rights, and so you are going to trial, even if you may personally think the case is not a good case for trial,” he said.