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Cook County expanding capacity for trials as COVID-19 eases

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CHICAGO — Cook County's courts are moving to expand their capacity to hold trials as COVID-19 restrictions ease amid a looming backlog of felony cases.

Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans announced Friday that 86 county courtrooms will become available for trials starting July 23. Evans' office said 76 of those courtrooms can be used for juries, thanks to reduced social-distancing guidelines.

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The Leighton Criminal Court Building in downtown Chicago has been facing a serious backlog of felony cases due to pandemic-related court slowdowns. And prosecutors are bracing themselves for what might be a flood of demands for trials, once the speedy-trial clock begins ticking again Oct. 1, the Chicago Tribune reported.

But in a news release, Evans said there are currently 159 cases which are ready for trial, and with the expanded capacity those trials can be "comfortably" accommodated by the end of September.

The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. is becoming “a pandemic of the unvaccinated.” Speaking during a White House briefing, Dr. Rochelle Walensky says cases in the U.S. are up about 70% over the last week, hospital admissions are up 36% and deaths rose by 26%. Nearly all hospital admissions and deaths, she says, are among the unvaccinated.

Evans said former criminal court judges who currently preside in other divisions of the court may be called in to preside over criminal trials.

Until recently, only one jury trial per week was held at the Leighton Criminal Court Building. But in a memo recently distributed to Leighton judges, acting Presiding Judge Erica Reddick said that up to six juries can be selected per week through July, and up to about 10 per week beginning in August.

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