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King County prosecutor says case backlog due to COVID pause must be addressed

Elaine Thompson
The Associated Press
King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg on March 14, 2017

Early in the pandemic, King County worked to limit the number of people in jail as a way of preventing the spread of the coronavirus. To help meet that goal, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg pledged to limit case filings to the serious felonies. Now, the prosecutor has increased filings for a broader array of crimes. He says the growing backlog left him with no choice. 

Satterberg says as the spread of the virus has continued, so has the backlog of cases to be filed. Prior to the pandemic, he said there was a backlog of about 5,000 cases. That’s now increased to 7,000, and he predicts it could reach 10,000 by the time the virus is under control. He says it’s like water building up behind a dam.

“It’s gonna threaten the whole dam and the town below if we don’t relieve that pressure,” he said.

Satterberg told the King County Council Law and Justice Committee that, if he waits until the pandemic is over to file all these cases, it will mean waiting years for them to be decided, which isn't fair to victims or defendants. He said it could overwhelm the courts. 

But public defenders in King County, including Kimberly La Fronz, told the King County Council what Satterberg is doing isn’t right, that the risk of catching COVID in busy courtrooms and jails is too great for both them and their clients.


La Fronz said the prosecutor should maintain the status quo.


“If there are not cases filed, there is not court, there is not jail,” she said.


Public defenders also questioned why the prosecutor has filed charges in cases of shoplifting or property damage. Satterberg said often the person has been arrested multiple times, including for more violent or serious offenses.


Public defender Michael Schueler said one issue in the courtroom is trying to remain safe while communicating with a client. He said during a criminal trial last year he asked if proceedings could be halted momentarily so he could confer with his client in the hallway. The judge declined the request and told him the most appropriate thing to do was to lean over and whisper to his client, who was about a foot away.


“We were wearing masks, but that doesn’t mitigate the issue of we’re not socially distanced at that point,” Schueler said.


While in-person jury trials have been put on hold and many other proceedings are being done virtually, there are still hearings and procedures where people have to physically be in the courtroom.

Judges and court administrators say they are doing everything they can to insure all parties in court are safe, but say it can be difficult to always monitor mask wearing and social distancing.

King County Presiding Judge Jim Rogers said he agrees with the prosecutor that court cases need to get resolved. And, he said, protocols need to be developed to resume jury trials.

“We need to get cases moving along in some fashion and resolved,” he told the council.

He pointed out that half of all cases in King County Superior Court are civil, not criminal, and some of the civil cases have already waited two years to go to trial. 


Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.