OGDEN — The Utah Supreme Court has lifted “red” COVID-19 restrictions on state court operations, meaning criminal trials will resume under the lesser “yellow” precautions.
As evidence of the relaxing environment, 2nd District Judge Jennifer Valencia on Wednesday scheduled a July 15 in-person preliminary hearing for Daniel Lee Johnson of Roy, who is accused of killing a neighbor and dumping his body in Ogden.
In announcing the loosened restrictions effective this week, Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew Durrant said courts will continue to conduct many hearings online, but trials and preliminary hearings — both heavy with witness testimony and presentation of visual exhibits — may resume in courthouses.
The order is in response to the most recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reduced numbers of COVID cases and increased vaccination rates.
Durrant’s announcement said there is a statewide backlog of about 350 trials and it will take until the middle of 2022 to clear the logjam.
During the pandemic, judges conducted 300 bench trials, which do not require juries. Social distancing requirements have made empaneling of juries unworkable.
Under the yellow phase, masks are no longer required in courthouses, but unvaccinated people are encouraged to wear masks. The courts also will continue to encourage physical distancing, wipe down high-touch surfaces, and monitor employees and individuals entering the courthouses for COVID symptoms, according to the announcement.
Valencia said phase yellow removes restrictions affecting jurors and there will no longer be rapid COVID-19 testing on the first day of trials. However, only one courtroom in the Ogden courthouse has been configured to retain a degree of social distancing, she said, so judges will have to rotate their cases through that bottleneck.
If the court system later enters the “green” phase, most remaining restrictions will be lifted.
Durrant’s announcement said retired judges will be called in to help clear the trial backlog. Several murder trials have piled up in local courts since the pandemic erupted in spring 2020.
In Johnson’s case, the Weber County Attorney’s Office will present evidence July 15 regarding the April 10 fatal shooting of Steven Robert Bailey.
Prosecutors have charged Johnson with first-degree felony murder, second-degree felony obstruction of justice and third-degree felony counts of abuse or desecration of a human body and use of a firearm by a restricted person.
Police alleged Johnson, 48, shot the 38-year-old Bailey in the head with a .45 caliber pistol, put him in Bailey’s car and abandoned the car with the body inside in an out-of-the-way place in central Ogden.
Bailey’s body was found three days later, and a state medical examiner’s autopsy found he had been shot, which was not obvious to crime scene investigators because of decomposition, according to police.
An Ogden Police Department arrest affidavit said Johnson allegedly confessed to shooting Bailey in an argument.