Potential jurors refuse to come to King County Courthouse over safety concerns
Safety concerns over the scene in and around the King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle have increased in recent weeks.
These are concerns that existed even before a dozens-strong homeless encampment took hold at City Hall Park. It’s an issue that pre-dates the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Third Avenue for years has been particularly bad. There were some high-profile assaults a couple of years ago on Third Avenue to include folks who were kind of near the bus stop. There was a really terrible assault on an attorney who is walking into the courthouse, and so our court has been concerned for years about the courthouse safety issues that have been going on, in and around the courthouse,” said acting presiding King County Superior Court Judge Patrick Oishi.
The concerns of staff reached a boiling point a few weeks ago when a female employee went to use the restroom, and as she entered a stall was attacked by a man lying in wait inside the stall. Nearby security heard her screams and were able to interrupt the attack, get the woman to safety, and arrest the suspect.
That attack came a short time after a deadly stabbing at the homeless encampment at nearby City Hall Park, which also had ongoing drug issues.
Following the attempted sexual assault, many who work at the courthouse took part in a rally and march around the courthouse demanding safety improvements.
Those safety concerns are now leading to another problem.
“All of our employees, whether it’s staff or judges, anyone who works in the courthouse, have to feel safe coming here,” Oishi said.
But that has not been the case.
Beyond judges, their staff, or anyone else working at the courthouse, many others either have to come to the courthouse in person because they are filing for a protective order, or need to engage with eviction or rental aid, while others are compelled to come to court as witnesses or jurors.
“Those people absolutely need access to the courts, and the safety and security issues related to being in the courthouse, as well as in the city of the courthouse really has created what I have described to a number of folks as an access to justice crisis,” Oishi said. “A crisis like no other we’ve seen.”
“One of the things that highlights the access to justice crisis I think the most is our situation with our backlog of cases, combined with the need to really ramp up the number of trials that we are going to need to get out,” Oishi explained, as an example. “And our situation with jurors — we have an immense criminal backlog of cases, and the court is ramping up, has been ramping up, and will continue to ramp up so that we can get more cases out there. But we cannot do that unless we have jurors who are willing to come to court.”
Right now, it’s not clear that there are people willing to come in.
“Because of the various incidents and safety issues in and around the King County Courthouse, we have more and more jurors every week indicating that they are not willing to come to court because they do not feel safe in and around the courthouse,” Oishi explained. “And if we don’t have jurors, we cannot do the essential work that we need to do. We can’t fulfill our constitutional mandates (of due process).”
One potential juror wrote to the court: “While I want to do my civic duty as a citizen, as a female Asian American, I feel extremely unsafe,” highlighting recent attacks on both women and Asians in the area.
Another wrote: “I refuse to come to Seattle, especially the courthouse, due to safety concerns.”
Judge Oishi says he and his colleagues are having difficultly getting jury trials completed.
“Now is probably the worst time that we could be facing that type of crisis just because we really need … to ramp up operations and try to get as many cases heard as possible,” he said. “There are a lot of folks who are waiting for their trials. And we feel very strongly that we need to really work hard to get those cases into courtrooms.”
As for what needs to be done for security, Oishi does not pretend to have all of the answers – only that all the answers currently on the table have not worked yet.
“We’re very thankful for what the city and county did with the park,” he said. “But we also look forward to working with our partners from city, as well as the county, to continue making positive changes and changes that would create a safe environment for everyone — employees, judicial officers, and jurors, anyone who needs to use the courthouse. We just want to continue with the positive work that folks are doing.”
The big barrier has often been that the city of Seattle owns City Hall Park and is responsible for its security, as for the security of the sidewalks in front of the courthouse. That has many focusing on a potential proposal from King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles that would give the county the power to handle its own security at the building and in the park through a land swap.