As the virus spreads, local courts and cases are impacted

The spread of the novel coronavirus in New York will put justice on hold in several local court cases, at least for now.

Starting Tuesday, all “non-essential” functions of the courts will be postponed until further notice, according to a memorandum issued Sunday by Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks. Pending trials will continue to their conclusions and no new civil or criminal trials will begin until further notice.

At a press briefing Sunday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the new court rules would keep “essential” operations, such as criminal justice and emergency family services, while meeting the state’s goal of reducing mass gatherings of people.

“The New York State court system congregates many people, tens of thousands of people all across the state,” the governor said. “Don’t jeopardize the criminal justice system, don’t jeopardize safety, don’t jeopardize family integrity, but if it’s nonessential then postpone it,” he said.

Locally, the new measures will impact several high-profile cases.

According to the memorandum, felony cases for defendants not in custody will be administratively adjourned until further notice. Cases where defendants are in custody may either be adjourned or, when possible, conducted remotely via video.

The announcement means that sentencing in the cases of Thomas Murphy — the 61-year-old Holbrook man responsible for a drunk driving crash that claimed the life of 12-year-old Andrew McMorris in 2018 — and Glenn Zaleski of Greenport, who pleaded guilty to aggravated vehicular homicide for his role in a drunk driving crash that claimed the life of a Queens man in July 2018, will be delayed.

“Please note that, in addressing essential applications, judges will exercise judicial discretion in a manner designed to minimize court appearance and traffic in the courts,” Judge Marks wrote in the memo.

Anthony Rutkowski, the Southampton-based attorney representing Mr. Zaleski, said Monday that his client’s sentencing will likely take place in late April.

Steven Politi, the defense attorney for Mr. Murphy, said the spread of the virus is a “major concern,” and did not speculate on when sentencing might occur. Mr. Murphy’s sentencing was tentatively scheduled for March 17, then delayed to March 27, according to court records. Mr. Politi said in a text message Monday that he anticipates court proceedings will grind to a halt. 

“I will not be going to court, irrespective of the rules, until they have a handle on this,” Mr. Politi said.

Andrew’s mother, Alisa McMorris, said Monday afternoon that she realizes the crisis is severe and decisions are being made in everyone’s best interest. “We expected the court closures and delays; however, it does not take away the pain we feel to have this process drag on even longer before sentencing. Most people believe that a guilty verdict sends you directly to jail, but it doesn’t,” she said. “We are in that awkward ‘in between’ time when sentencing should have happened already and now we have a national crisis to contend with. But Andrew is still gone and our home is one less. That pain is forever.” 

A memorial 5K walkathon event planned in Andrew’s honor for March 28 has also been postponed, the family said. The event was planned to raise funds for the Andrew McMorris Foundation and Boy Scouts of Suffolk County to finish construction of a cabin in Andrew’s name at the Baiting Hollow scouting camp.

“We are sad that it has to be rescheduled as it would have been an amazing way to pay tribute to Andrew around his birthday but forces beyond our control have caused the postponement,” the foundation said in a statement.

Beyond delays, special court parts will be convened to consolidate essential matters; in Suffolk County, that will be the Cohalan Court Complex in Central Islip, according to a New York State Unified Court System document. 

A trial currently underway in Riverside for Patchita Tennant, charged with the attempted murder of her estranged boyfriend, will continue, defense attorney Matthew Tuohy confirmed Monday. He said the trial will likely be moved to Central Islip and conclude as scheduled.

Justice courts in Riverhead and Southold towns remain closed and pending court matters have been postponed until further notice. Though the buildings are closed to the public, some staff members remain at work, according to officials at both locations.

The updated court protocols align with the goal of reducing density and the number of visitors to courthouses across the state. A number of matters, including eviction proceedings and pending eviction orders, have also been suspended statewide. Arraignments will continue in the centralized locations, though Judge Marks urged judicial staff to conduct those proceedings remotely via video wherever possible.