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ELKHORN

After hours of waiting, killing time in the Walworth County Courthouse while a jury weighed the defendant’s future, both sides received notice—the jury had reached its verdict.

Lawyers, family members, victims, the defendant and others filed into the courtroom.

Hearts likely were pounding—the forthcoming decision could be the difference between freedom and prison.

Mackenzie Renner, the head of state assistant public defenders in Walworth County, said jury trials are “very stressful” for her clients. The defendants trust their futures to “12 complete strangers from the community.”

“For many people, that’s very scary,” she said.

While jury trials are still relatively rare—most cases end with plea agreements—Walworth County has for years been near the top of the state in jury trials.

But in 2017, the year District Attorney Zeke Wiedenfeld took over, Walworth County had 54 jury trials—more than the two previous years combined.

In 2018, only two much larger counties—Milwaukee (693) and Dane (93)—had more jury trials than Walworth County, which by itself accounted for 3.4 percent of all the state’s trials.

Wiedenfeld said jury trials let the public have their say on a case. Same is true for victims, who can testify. Jury trials let defendants have their day in court, which is guaranteed under the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution.

Jury trials carry costs, however.

Jury trials are time-consuming to lawyers, judges, witnesses, jury members and anyone else involved in the cases, but Wiedenfeld said trials are what his office is paid to do. When prosecutors decide to file charges, they consider if they could prove the case to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.

“It’s not our job to not work,” he said. “It’s our job to present cases to juries.”

‘Dictated by justice’

In 2016, former Walworth County DA Dan Necci left his post. Wiedenfeld officially took over as the county’s top prosecutor in January 2017.

That year, Wisconsin saw a 7 percent increase in criminal jury trials—moving from 1,402 to 1,501.

Walworth County, meanwhile, saw a 135 percent increase—from 23 to 54—in Wiedenfeld’s first year, according to Wisconsin court data on criminal trials analyzed by The Gazette. These criminal cases include felony, misdemeanor and criminal traffic cases.

Both of Wiedenfeld’s first two years saw 54 jury trials. Before Wiedenfeld, the average for Walworth County from 2009 to 2016 was fewer than 30 trials per year.

The DA said many factors probably are at play in the jury trial increase. On the practical side, he said, Walworth County had a backlog of cases when he started. Having more cases leads to more trials.

Still, Wiedenfeld is charging more cases than his predecessors, even though arrests in the county have been down. Criminal case filings have reached levels higher than they have been in 12 years.

But that alone does not explain the higher number of jury trials.

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Both 2017 and 2018 featured higher percentages—3.1 and 2.7 percent, respectively—of Walworth County cases that went to trial when compared to the total number of cases completed. Both of those percentages are higher than any year in the last 10.

Walworth County doesn’t have as many trials as Dane County, whose population is more than five times that of Walworth’s. But Dane’s percentage is at 1.7 percent (Milwaukee County is at 5.4 percent).

Wiedenfeld said another factor is how judges in the county decide sentences and what their expectations are for cases. Judges ultimately don’t have to accept plea agreements, so the chance of them rejecting a plea agreement is a factor prosecutors have to consider, he said.

“Obviously, we’re not dictated by what the judges say, and the judges aren’t dictated by what we say,” he said. “But we certainly factor that in, too.”

Additionally, Wiedenfeld said, he reinstated a policy he learned from former DA Phillip Koss that could cut down on last-minute deals. Assistant district attorneys need his approval to modify a plea-agreement offer if it’s within two weeks of trial.

“It’s not that there couldn’t be agreements worked out,” he explained. “But avoiding either side trying to do a last minute, ‘Oh well, let’s just quick do this to make the case go away’ type (of) agreement.”

He was an assistant district attorney under Koss when the now-judge was the county’s top prosecutor.

Whether a case ends with a jury trial should be “dictated by justice,” Wiedenfeld said. The decision should not be motivated by finances or putting “notches on your belt.”

“It’s really just about trying to get a fair result,” he said. “Really, jury trials are just a defendant expressing their rights. They’re entitled to have a jury trial.”

What it means

A lot of the lawyers who work in the Walworth County courthouse have each other’s cellphone numbers. Renner said it’s because being an assistant public defender or prosecutor is not a 9-to-5 job.

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Trial preparation takes time. There are police reports to review, videos to watch, witnesses to track down, strategy to plan.

But before a case goes to trial, both sides are able to negotiate an offer to end a case without a jury being seated.

Cecelia Klingele, an assistant professor at the UW Law School, said an abundance of jury trials could mean plea offers are not being perceived as fair or cases include evidence defendants want to challenge. She said there are other possibilities, too.

Renner said she really doesn’t know what the number of jury trials says about plea negotiations in the county. She can just walk her clients through the cost-benefit analysis of each choice.

During plea negotiations, Wiedenfeld said, his goal is to do the right thing, which is getting justice for victims and for the public.

Trials can give defendants a chance to have their cases put into context. They can tell their sides of the story, Renner said.

“And there are cases of actual innocence,” she said.

Ultimately, however, she said the decision of whether to go to trial or not hers to make.

“Ultimately, we are doing what our clients are asking of us,” she said.