News - Joliet and Will County

New guidelines set for Will County jury trials

Court order adjusts jury trial rules in response to COVID-19 pandemic

Will County Courthouse, 14 W. Jefferson St., Joliet.

Jury trials in Will County will be decided on a case-by-case basis by the presiding judges in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

A court order effective Thursday said all jury trials shall be heard at the discretion of the assigned trial judge while taking into consideration Illinois Supreme Court orders and guidelines.

The order amends a previous order effective Aug. 31 that suspended jury trials “until further order of this court, notwithstanding any constitutional due process issues that shall be raised in an individual case.”

Will County Chief Judge Richard Schoenstedt said judges will make whatever findings they need to make on whether a trial should go forward depending on COVID-19 considerations and the ability of courthouse staff to conduct a trial.

“All those sorts of things will be really important on a case by case basis,” he said.

The court orders on jury trials were challenged by attorney Jeff Tomczak on Friday during a hearing before Judge Vincent Cornelius. Tomczak requested dismissal of murder and aggravated discharge of a firearm charges against his client Rasean Stokes, 19, over due process violations.

Tomczak argued the court orders on jury trials violate Stokes’ due process rights, his right to a speedy trial and whether he can choose a jury or a bench trial.

Tomczak said under the Illinois constitution, the right to a jury trial “shall remain inviolate,” or not violated. He said due process rights belong to defendants.

“We have a court order where we have to literally ask you at your discretion, ‘May I please, your Honor, have a jury trial?’ That’s not right,” he said.

Will County Assistant State’s Attorney Debbie Mills said Tomczak’s speedy trial demand was filed the same day as his motion to dismiss the case against Stokes and no allegation was made in the motion of “any prejudice to the defendant.”

Mills said the court orders still recognizes defendants have a right to a jury trial but they also set forth that judges should consider several factors on whether a trial should be held based on health, safety and other issues.

“I think the next step in this case is for your Honor to determine when an appropriate time and place will be for the defendant’s trial,” she said.

Cornelius denied Tomczak’s motion. He said he considered the COVID-19 infection and death rates, as well as public health guidelines. He said he agreed a defendant’s right to a jury trial is inviolate but ruling in favor of Tomczak’s motion would require dismissal of other pending criminal cases based on the “mere existence” of the court orders.

Felix Sarver

Felix Sarver

Felix Sarver covers crime and courts for The Herald-News