CLEVELAND — Cleveland's Rape Crisis Center reports up to 100 sexual assault cases have been delayed in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court because of the on-going suspension of jury trails, due to COVID-19 health concerns.
Sexual assault survivor and survivor advocate Alisa Alfaro said the delays in jury trials have made it especially hard for those waiting for justice during the pandemic.
"Hearing that guilty plea and going through the process, that’s one of the biggest steps that we can take toward healing," Alfaro said. “With the delays that we’re having now, we’ve left people in limbo who can’t get the regular services that they might normally have."
“I don’t see any reason that we should be holding these court cases until we can put the victim and the suspect in the same room together. A lot victims are already isolated, just by the shame of being a victim," she added.
“Imagine what it’s like when your case is in limbo, a huge step of your healing is waiting on somebody else, you’re not even sure if they believe you or not," Alfaro said.
Alfaro is concerned trial delays could trigger a growing number of plea bargains, which may allow some convicted offenders to stay off the sexual offender registry.
“They won’t be registered number one, and number two, if they are a repeat offender, it won’t look like a repeat offender, because maybe they pleaded down to assault," Alfaro said.
Sondra Miller, president of the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, told News 5 she's hoping more Cuyahoga County delayed cases could move forward through virtual proceedings using web platforms like Zoom.
“Many survivors would much prefer to be interviewed, or give a victim impact statements through technology, where they can be in the comfort of their own home," Miller said.
Miller said trial delays have left some waiting for justice feeling even more isolated.
“Their typical support system is not easily available to them, and they feel even more alone," Miller said.
“We have dozens of survivors who have been reaching out to us and asking us what’s going on.”
Cuyahoga County Presiding Administrative Judge Brendan Sheehan said his team is working on ways to keep more cases moving during the pandemic.
“It is painful for all of us in the justice system, for victims specifically," Judge Sheehan said. “We understand the delay, the delay in justice, delay in closure.”
He added, “we brought the defense bar, the prosecutors, all the judges together and said look, we’ve got to start thinking outside the box. Don’t wait for a trial date to get to a resolution. “Keep in mind when it comes to virtual proceedings that’s not up to the judge or the prosecutor, the defendant has the right to confrontation."
Sheehan said he'll meet with all judges next week to continue to work on a way to move more cases forward, but said the current COVID-19 numbers will keep jury trials on-hold through at least January.
Meanwhile, Miller is reminding survivors who have yet to come forward and report their cases that help is just one phone call away.
“I would say to survivors come forward whenever you’re ready, take as much time as you need and we will be here," Miller said. "We will be here when the time is right for you to get help.”