COVID-19 closure of courts is about to unleash flood of cases

Niagara County District Attorney Brian D. Seaman is surrounded by what he says is a couple years worth of court cases yet to go to trial in this March photo.

Fifteen months after criminal trials in Niagara County ground to a halt in the face of the novel coronavirus pandemic, in-person proceedings, complete with juries, have resumed at the county courthouse in Lockport.

After two days of jury selection and two days of testimony, jurors deliberated for most of the day Friday before finding Tyrone Belton Bruce Jr., 37, of Lockport guilty of two counts of second-degree criminal possession of a weapon and one count of seventh-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance.

"This is a significant first step in bringing the large backlog of criminal cases caused by the COVID shutdowns to conclusion and holding individuals accountable” Niagara County District Attorney Brian Seaman said. "We are starting to break the logjam."

Seaman said the resumption of trials has also led to an increase in the number of defendants choosing to take plea deals from prosecutors.

"We've had quite a number of cases plead," the DA said. "A number of defendants, as their trial dates neared, decided that it was (advantageous) to take a plea."

Seaman praised the work of Assistant District Attorneys Maria Stoelting and Christine Savoia in handling the first post-pandemic trial. Though Stoelting noted not everything in the courtroom was back to normal.

"Well everything was still socially distanced," she said. "And that meant we had six jurors in the jury box and the other six spread-out in the courtroom. So that made things a little more difficult."

The Office of Court Administration is also still requiring the wearing of masks in courthouses, regardless of a person's vaccination status.

"Wearing masks during an entire trial was certainly challenging," Stoelting said. "But it was nice to be back in front of people and doing my job."

Like Seaman, Stoelting also said the return of trials is the first step in clearing cases.

"Us, defense attorneys, everybody's got this bottleneck (of cases to be resolved)," Stoelting said. "But now that's starting to be released."

Bruce's case dates back to a September 2019 raid, by the Niagara County Drug Task Force and Lockport Police, at his South Bristol Avenue home that turned-up a pair of loaded illegal handguns, a set of brass knuckles and narcotics.

The raid was the result of a two-month long investigation into reported drug activity in and around Bruce's residence.

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