N.S. court struggles to clear lengthy backlog of jury trials

·3 min read

The delicate balancing act required to schedule jury trials in the Halifax area resumed Friday.

Dozens of trials were cancelled when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March. Since then, additional cases have made their way through the lower courts and are now awaiting scheduling as well.

Jury trials cannot be held in The Law Courts in downtown Halifax because the building does not meet pandemic restrictions on crowd sizes. Jury selection requires hundreds of people to gather.

Two alternate courtrooms are being built in the Burnside Industrial Park in Dartmouth but won't be ready until March.

Jordan decision

Looming over the entire process is the deadline imposed by the Supreme Court of Canada in its Jordan decision. That decision set 30 months as the maximum amount of time a case could take from the time a charge is laid until a verdict is delivered.

The Jordan decision allows extensions for what is described as exceptional circumstances.

It's not yet clear whether the disruptions caused by the pandemic would be considered exceptional circumstances for the purposes of calculating whether a case has taken too long. Some of the cases on Friday's special docket had already passed their 30-month deadline.

With all that in mind, Associate Chief Justice Patrick Duncan spent the morning trying to juggle dates.

He was forced to push back a trial that had already been scheduled for Adam Joseph Drake and give the earlier dates to another man, Markel Jason Downey.

Trials date move for Drake, Downey

Drake is accused of first-degree murder in the 2016 shooting death of Tyler Keizer.

But Drake is free on conditions and Downey is in custody, awaiting trial on a murder charge. Downey got Drake's March 2021 court dates and Drake's trial is now set for November 2021.

Downey is facing charges in connection with a home invasion in Cole Harbour in November 2014.

He was initially charged with attempted murder and acquitted following an earlier trial. That acquittal was overturned and a new trial was ordered.

In the interim, one of the victims, Ashley Kearse, died. Her death was ruled a homicide.

The Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service had made a motion to rearrange a whole swath of court dates because of concerns over Jordan deadlines.

But Duncan rejected the proposal for wholesale changes, saying there are other considerations besides the Jordan deadlines, such as the availability of judges and lawyers.

He then proceeded to work through a docket of nearly 30 outstanding cases. Duncan was alone in the courtroom with just one technical assistant, co-ordinating the video hookups to the various jails and prisons where some of the accused are being held.

Some trials scheduled into 2022

Even court staff were working from a remote location elsewhere in the court house. All the lawyers appeared over the phone.

One of the newest additions to Friday's docket was the retrial of Randy Riley on a charge of second-degree murder. He's charged in the October 2010 death of Chad Smith.

The Supreme Court of Canada overturned Riley's conviction last month. His second trial is now scheduled for October 2021.

Some of the trials had to be scheduled into 2022, although Duncan expressed the hope that widespread COVID-19 vaccinations might enable trials to resume, which would add capacity and speed up the process.