'Nightmare scenario:' Estimated 35K cases delayed by COVID-19 closures at Milwaukee County Courthouse

MILWAUKEE -- Like the old saying, everyone is entitled to their day in court. In Milwaukee County, that day may not happen anytime soon.

"I think it's a nightmare scenario," said Jonathan Smith, a criminal defense attorney.

Two high-profile cases involving local law enforcement members -- Milwaukee Police Officer Michael Mattioli and Milwaukee County Sheriff's Deputy Joel Streicher, are both out of custody and their respective cases are both on hold.

Their cases are part of an estimated 35,000 cases delayed because the Milwaukee County Courthouse and courtrooms remain mostly closed due to COVID-19.

Chief Judge Mary Triggiano

"It's going to get worse before it gets better, but we are looking at ways to chip away at it to the best of our ability during this crisis," said Milwaukee County Chief Judge Mary Triggiano.

Triggiano estimates the county handles 10-12 jury trials every week. That number now, is zero.

"I think the delay, unfortunately, has had a tremendous impact on victims' families, defense families, it's having a tremendous impact on court staff," Triggiano said.

Jonathan Smith

While some hearings are virtual, most out-of-custody hearings have to wait.

"That is something that can weigh upon them over time, so it's a real mess," said Smith. "Cases dragging out has tremendous impacts, not the least of which, just the uncertainty as it takes a toll on you as an individual as to how it impacts your psyche."

That delay could help -- but also hurt defense cases.

"Not only do you have the cases that could have been and should have been heard before, but now you have new cases coming in," Triggiano said. "How do you do justice to those when you have those that were waiting for their day in court?"

Three of 23 criminal courts are open, and those are mostly reserved for in-custody inmates. Triggiano says some hearings will start back up in 30-40 days. How those will look, exactly, is still being worked out.