Pandemic-delayed justice: 1000+ cases backlogged in WashCo

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Hundreds of domestic violence cases are on hold, frustrating many

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — On a September night in 2019, as high winds, rain and even and EF-0 tornado touched down in Portland, Melissa Pfaender was in the middle of her own storm. That was the night a fight with her husband turned physical.

“It was horrible. Sprained my arm or my elbow and I had a deep chest bruise from him trying to take my cellphone. I had stuck it in my bra because that was the only safe place,” she told KOIN 6 News. “I eventually was able to contact my parents and when I thought I had turned off my phone I hadn’t. And they heard everything happen and they’re the ones who called the police.”

Her husband was charged with harassment and 4th-degree assault domestic violence.

The case was set to go to trial just as everything shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. The trial was canceled and it hasn’t been rescheduled.

“I feel stuck, I feel abandoned, I feel as if I’m still in an abusive relationship,” she said. “It hurts. It hurts just like it hurt that night. So you, you relive the trauma instead of grow, outgrow the trauma. You’re just reliving it over and over again.”

Melissa Pfaender in an undated, courtesy photo

Pfaender is now staying with her parents. She said her court advocate calls once a month to check in, but each call comes and goes without a new court date.

“To not be able to move on and move past this, both with the criminal and in the divorce courts, I still, it’s hard to describe. It’s the most loneliest feeling in the world. You ask for help and you don’t get any help.”

Although she feels alone as she waits, she’s not alone in her struggle for justice.

In Washington County more than 1000 cases are waiting for a court date to be set, and hundreds of those are domestic violence cases.

“We are talking about hundreds of cases that are on backlog right now that don’t even have a trial date scheduled,” Washington County Senior Deputy DA Gina Skinner told KOIN 6 News.

Skinner said the courts are still charging cases and holding arraignments, but taking cases to trial has been extremely difficult because of the pandemic. In fact, since March she’s only had one case go to trial.

“That’s been the biggest challenge with COVID is that the court dates have been set apart from each other so significantly, these cases are being really drawn out,” she said. “It is a significant hardship for everybody involved.”

With physical distancing requirements, Skinner said the courts can only run about 3 trials at any given time. That’s because it takes 3 courtrooms to hold one trial:

The jury box in a courtroom. (KOIN)
  • Jurors can no longer sit close to one another in a jury box, so they need one courtroom just to spread out the jurors and hold the trial.
  • A second courtroom is needed to live stream the trial, so the victim and other members of the public can safely watch.
  • A third courtroom is needed for jurors to take breaks and deliberate because the old jury rooms are too small to keep everyone 6 feet apart.

Because of laws surrounding the defendant’s constitutional rights, Skinner said there are things they simply can’t do virtually — like having all the jurors on one big Zoom call.

“Unfortunately for this purpose because you’re dealing with a defendant’s constitutional rights. I just don’t think that would ever happen for a trial,” the deputy DA said.

The new Event Center at the Washington County Fairgrounds, as seen on their website, November 14, 2020

In addition to the regular courthouse, Washington County recently started using the new Event Center at the Fairgrounds to hold more court cases. They are also looking at other options to resolve outstanding cases, but Skinner said there is only so much they can do.

“So unfortunately, as far as, you know, having an answer, to be able to respond to this person’s very legitimate frustrations about the delay, I don’t really have one,” she said. “Because of course none of us know how long we’ll be in this current situation and how long it will be affecting the court.”

Washington County hopes to start holding more trials by December and officials said domestic violence cases will be given priority.

Washington County Domestic Violence information
Washington County Domestic Violence resources
Washington County DA – Resources, Links for victims, families
Domestic Violence Resource Center

As the cases stack up, so do the frustrations and feelings of hopelessness for people like Melissa Pfaender who remain stuck in a holding pattern. Although the court process has been frustrating, help and resources are still available.

KOIN 6 News generally does not identify the victims of domestic violence. But Pfaender contacted KOIN 6 News to share her story in the hope it will help someone else in a similar situation.

“Anytime you have to talk about it, anytime that you have to anticipate going to court or possibly wait for that subpoena to come in the mail from the DA, waiting is hard,” she said. “I didn’t realize that a year later, I would still be in the same place and no one has any sort of date or time set to help me.”

If you need help, resources are available. You can reach the Domestic Violence Hotline 24/7 at 1.800.799.SAFE (7233).

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