CHESAPEAKE, Va. (WAVY) — One of the complicated issues from COVID-19 is the postponement of jury trials across Virginia. The order was issued back in March by the Supreme Court of Virginia. The last jury trial in Chesapeake was on March 12.
Chief Circuit Court Judge Randall Smith met with 10 On Your Sides over Webex, which is like Zoom but considered more secure. He was telling us about his plan to get jury trials back up and running in Chesapeake.
That new plan is cemented in this new reality: face coverings required at all times, social distancing required at all times, and jurors are protected at all times.
“How are we going to safely get people into the court building, how are we going to handle cases? And I haven’t had time to think about much else than that,” Smith said.
Instead of the jury reporting to the deliberation room, they are now going to report to the courtroom they are in and will remain there all day until the trial is over.
Smith says he will have a finalized plan of action by the end of the week, which is required by the state supreme court.
“We will submit a plan to the chief justice who would then submit it to a three-justice panel for approval before a circuit court can resume to conduct jury trials,” Smith said.
The biggest change in Chesapeake will be the jury box, and it’s all about social distancing. The jury box has Plexiglas in front of it and separating each of the juror’s seats, so each juror can socially distance in tight quarters.
Smith says jury trials which will likely begin in October will be in three courtrooms. At the trial’s end, the jury will deliberate in the courtroom while everyone else leaves.
Smith is also concerned about jury pools.
“We will have a constant tally. We will know how many jurors are excused, and we can keep adding more and more to constitute a panel to hear a criminal case.”
In court, there are signs that face coverings are required at all times, and only 40 people will be allowed in courtroom one. Potential jurors will sit in those seats until they are chosen so sit on the jury. The court seating during the trial will also respect social distancing.
Each of the three courts that will be used for jury trials have adjoining courtrooms, so they can be used in tandem for other trial proceedings like sidebar conversations, and other discussions out of the presence of the jury while the jury remains in the courtroom.
“The jurors will remain in the courtroom to deliberate. If they need restrooms, they will be permitted to use the restrooms in what is now the small jury deliberation room, but that room will not be used as the jury will be in the courtroom … for social distancing,” Court Administrator Tammie White told us.
Smith expects jury trials to resume in October, but understands potential jurors will have legitimate COVID-19 concerns.
“If they email us, then we will know how many are excused, and the jury coordinator can bring in more people for the panel.”
Smith also says people coming to the court must be honest about their health.
“We are going to rely on them to self-check on that, and advise us to health warnings before they report, and tell us by email if there is a reason they shouldn’t report.”
Smith says Chesapeake jury trials are backlogged four to five months, and may take a year to catch up, and the court is operating at only 50 percent capacity.
Criminal cases will get priority, civil cases may not resume until next year, and there will be less sitting around.
“People will come into the court building when they need to, they come into the court, and when that is finished, they will then leave the court building. It will be sanitized, wiped down, and another case comes in,” Smith told us.
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