After she was arraigned in the killing of her husband, Thompson’s trial was set for the end of December 2020. That was too soon for a homicide trial, so the date was pushed to June 2021.
Then it was kicked back to September 2021. Then again to January of this year.
Such delays are common in Snohomish County Superior Court, where violent felony cases can take years to resolve, forcing some defendants to spend extra time in jail and families of victims to wait for much-needed closure.
Many factors contribute to the holdups, including police reforms and other changes to state law. But none outdo the interruptions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Jury trials were twice suspended in 2020, grinding case resolutions almost to a halt. And even without formal pauses, trials have still struggled to get back on track.
“Certainly, we are in a different place with COVID now than we were a couple years ago,” Prosecutor Adam Cornell said. “But the impacts of the pandemic reverberate still. So the impacts of that slowdown have persisted, for sure.”
There were 24 trials from January to April, according to state data. In the months before the pandemic, Snohomish County Superior Court could conduct that many trials in half as long. In all of last year, there were 108, compared to 137 in 2020 and a whopping 248 in 2019.
Kathleen Kyle, managing director of the Snohomish County Public Defender Association, said trials have seen a downtick even in the past six weeks, as attorneys and others have gotten sick in the most recent COVID wave.
“Luckily, people are vaccinated … but they can’t come to work,” she said. “I worry about how much pressure our system, including me, is putting on our folks to resolve these cases in the midst of these potpourri of variables we do not control.”
Last week, there were over 1,400 pending criminal cases in Snohomish County Superior Court, according to the prosecutor’s office. Those are cases in which a defendant has been arraigned and is awaiting trial. They don’t include those waiting for sentencing or post-conviction matters.
Meanwhile, there are thousands more civil and domestic cases that also need to be handled, Presiding Judge George Appel told The Daily Herald.
Of the more than 1,400 criminal cases, nearly 270 are for allegations of violent crimes; almost 200 for sex offenses and alleged crimes against children; and 170 for domestic violence offenses.
A different count from court staff shows the total pending cases have more than doubled since before the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2021, prosecutors filed over 1,400 adult criminal cases in Snohomish County Superior Court, according to state data. That was down from nearly 1,900 the year before. Still, in 2021, attorneys resolved more cases than the previous year: roughly 2,100 compared to 1,500.
In 2019, the last year not affected by the pandemic, local prosecutors filed more than 2,500 felony cases. Nearly 2,800 cases were completed.
That drop matches statewide trends in the early stages of the pandemic. In the first 10 months of the pandemic, case filings dropped by almost a quarter and dispositions by a third, according to the Washington State Institute for Public Policy.
But while filings dropped the past couple years, the severity of cases may have increased. The percentage of homicide cases in Snohomish County has increased each year of the pandemic, according to state data.
“The cases didn’t stop, but the resolutions did,” Cornell said, likening the issue to a “tsunami.”
In the special assault unit that handles sex offenses and crimes against children, case filings now and prior to the pandemic are about the same, Cornell said. But guilty pleas dropped in half, forcing more cases to go to trial. When people didn’t have to fear being convicted at trial and were out of custody as the jail population plummeted, they had less incentive to resolve their case, he figured.
And defendants in nonviolent cases are much less often opting for alternatives, like drug court or diversion programs, Cornell said. He attributed that to people charged with crimes spending much less time in court due to COVID-19 protocols.
“Instead, those cases are just getting continued and continued and continued and continued and continued,” the prosecutor said. “And they’re just not getting resolved.”
Kyle, the public defender, attributed that to a lack of resources for those alternatives.
‘Nobody was happy’
While the prosecutor’s office says it has used money earmarked in the county budget to hire more prosecutors, caseloads remain high.
Local prosecutors handling nonviolent charges, like property crimes, are sometimes juggling 90 to 100 cases at any given time, Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecutor Matt Baldock said. For those pursuing violent cases, that number is lower. But in some instances, even those figures are creeping up into the 60s or 70s at a time. That’s too many, Baldock said.
Some public defenders have upwards of 80 open felony cases on their plates, Kyle noted.
“If you’re juggling 100 things, you touch those 100 cases fewer times than if you’re juggling 50 things,” she said.
Meanwhile, cases are getting increasingly complex in the digital age, further clogging up the justice system in Snohomish County. For example, in 2017 Kyle’s office had seven terabytes of digital storage for surveillance footage, cellphone data and other evidence. That was all the way up to 31 terabytes last year.
Superior Court should soon have more capacity to handle cases. State lawmakers unanimously approved funding this year for two more Superior Court judges to help get through the backlogged cases. That will bring the county’s total to 17.
In Thompson’s case, she is out of custody as she awaits trial, but other defendants don’t have the same luxury.
Alex Valdovinos, for example, has been in the Snohomish County Jail since March 2020 on $200,000 bail after prosecutors accused him of a Lynnwood shooting that left a 36-year-old man dead. His trial is set for October, over 30 months after he was arrested.
Prosecutors worry that the longer charges languish, the weaker their case will be. Years after a crime, witness memories can waver, for example.
“A criminal case is not like a fine wine,” Cornell said. “It does not get better with age.”
Meanwhile, Kyle argued that “the longer people are engaged in the system, the worse their outcomes are.”
At this point, Judge Appel believes the local court system may be making progress.
Since February, 520 cases have been filed in Superior Court, assistant court administrator Brittany Romero said in an email. Almost 600 were resolved, slightly outpacing the filings.
“So that’s nice,” Appel said.
Now, Thompson, 65, is set for trial in December, more than two years after charges were filed against her. Baldock usually tells victims’ families that violent cases should take about a year to finish.
Defense attorney Caroline Mann said the delays have been frustrating for everybody.
“Nobody was happy.”