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Cass, Traill and Steele counties suspend jury trials as omicron cases surge

Cass County set a record of 3,583 active coronavirus cases Friday, more than double the highest level, reported in November 2020.

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FARGO — Trials in Cass, Steele and Traill counties will be pushed back at least a month after the omicron variant of the coronavirus has caused cases to skyrocket.

East Central District Presiding Judge John Irby signed an order last week that suspended trials in the three counties starting Thursday, Jan. 20. The order is slated to expire Feb. 25.

“The prevalence of the omicron variant in Cass County is creating stress on the court systems, including the clerk’s office, the state’s attorney’s office and the Cass County Jail,” Irby wrote in the order.

The order came as the omicron variant surged in Cass County. The county had the most active cases in North Dakota as of Friday with 3,583, more than double the record set in November 2020 and nearly five times the count reported a month ago, according to the North Dakota Department of Health.

The Friday number also made up nearly 30% of the North Dakota active caseload, which was 12,063, the health department said. Cass County makes up about 24% of North Dakota’s population.

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With its second order to suspend trials since the pandemic began two years ago, the East Central Judicial District became the first in the state to halt trials during the omicron wave. Minnesota has not halted trials, but courts are relying on remote access unless in-person hearings are authorized by the courts.

Irby’s order does not require remote hearings, though they have been utilized.

Precautions have been implemented to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in court, but “there is a heightened concern” about jury trials happening without being impacted by omicron, Irby said.

One trial that was supposed to start Tuesday was that of Cody Raymond Plumlee, who is charged with the murder of his girlfriend in December 2020. The 29-year-old from Fargo is accused of breaking into an apartment and pushing Kirsten Knaus. She fell down stairs and later died of her injuries, prosecutors said.

The Cass County Jail, which had been transporting inmates to the courthouse for hearings, locked down last week due to an outbreak of the coronavirus in the facility. Last week, inmates appeared from the jail via videoconferencing.

Most of the areas in the jail had been cleared of the coronavirus as of Monday, Jan. 24, Jail Administrator Andrew Frobig said. One area had eight cases, with the jail being on what Frobig called a modified lockdown.

April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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