Jury duty in a pandemic? Forced delays, court cancellations across the United States


HARTFORD, Connecticut – Jury service notices put Nicholas Philbrook’s home on the verge of fear that he will contract the coronavirus and pass it on to his stepfather, a cancer survivor with diabetes in the mid-1970s who is at higher risk of developing serious complications from COVID-19.

Philbrook and his wife, Heather Schmidt, of Camarillo, Calif., Tried to convince court officials that he should be excused from jury duty because his father lives with them. But court officials told him that was not a valid reason and that he was due to appear in court early next month.

“My main concern is that you always have to walk into a building, you always have to be around a certain number of people,” said Philbrook, 39, editor of a marketing firm. “In an enclosed space, how safe are you? Now is just not a good time to do this stuff on a normal basis.

People across the country have similar concerns amid resurgences of the coronavirus, a fact that has derailed plans to resume jury trials in many courthouses for the first time since the start of the pandemic.

Over the past month, courts in Hartford, Connecticut, San Diego and Norfolk, Va. Had to delay jury selection for trials because too few people responded to juror summons. Non-response rates are much higher today than they were before the pandemic, according to court officials.

Judges in New York, Indiana, Colorado and Missouri recently declared trial cancellations because people linked to the trials either tested positive for the virus or were showing symptoms.

“What does the real question come down to: are people ready to go to this tribunal and participate in a jury trial? said Bill Raftery, senior analyst at the National Center for State Courts. “Many courts have reacted to jurors who have said they are uncomfortable coming to court and doing jury duty and therefore offering postponements simply because of concerns about COVID.”

Also this month, courts in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey and courts in Denver, Colo. Were among those to stay all jury trials due to rising virus rates. . Federal officials on Friday announced that about two dozen U.S. district courts across the county had suspended jury trials and grand jury proceedings due to virus outbreaks and too few people showing up to do so. juror office.

Circuit courts across Oregon have significantly reduced their operations. In Multnomah County, only two felony jury trials had taken place in the six months to early October.

Courts are under pressure to resume trials due to backlogs accumulating during the pandemic.

A few courts have held trials in person and by video conference. While video conferencing may seem like the best bet, many criminal defense attorneys oppose it because it is more difficult to determine the credibility of witnesses and see if jurors are paying attention, said Christopher Adams, a lawyer at Charleston, South Carolina, and President of the National. Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

“For almost everyone, there is no need for trials to continue during the pandemic,” he said, adding that most courts do not hold jury trials at this time.

Adams said another concern was how representative juries would be if the trials continued – the impact of the virus and the level of concern about it among different demographic groups, such as black, Latin and elderly populations who die at a higher rate, could affect who feels safe. to fulfill the function of juror.

“What we cannot allow is to have trials where there is not a representative sample of the community represented,” he said.

But many criminal defense lawyers point to a major problem with not being tried – defendants who are detained pending trial. Although prisons and prisons across the country have released thousands of low-risk inmates due to concerns about the virus, many people remain in pre-trial detention.

A case in federal court in Hartford, Connecticut, offers insight into how the virus can disrupt proceedings.

In October, 150 people were summoned to jury duty in the trial of Amber Foley, who is battling child pornography charges and demanding her constitutional right to a speedy trial. It would be the first criminal trial in Connecticut, in state or federal court, since the start of the pandemic.

Only about half of the potential jurors showed up and many more were excused for a variety of reasons, including concerns about COVID-19. There were only 19 people left, less than the 31 people deemed necessary to choose a jury of 12 and a substitute juror.

And then, two court security guards tested positive for the virus, forcing the courthouse to be temporarily closed for cleaning and prompting Judge Vanessa Bryant’s coroner to self-isolate and get tested due to contact with the agents.

Bryant decided last week to postpone Foley’s jury selection to mid-January. Like judges in other parts of the country, she ruled that the interests of public health outweighed those of a speedy trial.

“Despite the Court’s best efforts, the Court must reluctantly conclude that it is unable to constitute a representative jury from among the 200 candidate jurors summoned without jeopardizing the safety of all participants in the trial,” Bryant wrote in a decision.

Federal officials have designated a courtroom for jury trials in each of Connecticut’s three federal courthouses, with a second courtroom entirely reserved for jurors to meet for breaks and deliberations. A bit of plexiglass was installed, airflow systems were improved, and the seating arrangement was reconfigured for social distancing. Masks are mandatory.

Foley was released on bail pending trial. His lawyer, Todd Bussert, has argued in court documents that the coronavirus does not override Foley’s speedy trial rights and that other courts across the country have held trials during the pandemic. He also noted that he had two children who attend face-to-face classes at public schools.

“The fact that schools can operate and remain open … even when members of their communities test positive for COVID-19 … belies any hyperbolic claims aimed at restricting the rights of defendants,” he wrote .

In San Diego, a criminal case had to be postponed last month because too few people turned up for jury duty. Officials summoned 900 people twice, but only 40 people showed up each time, KGTV reported.

In Norfolk, Va., Efforts to resume jury trials during the pandemic recently came to a halt because about nine out of 10 potential jurors failed to appear in court, The Virginian-Pilot reported.

Failure to stand for jury duty is a felony in most places. The sanction can include fines and, in some cases, short prison terms. Officials in some justice systems have said they plan to strengthen law enforcement to improve response rates.

Philbrook, the California man, said he and his wife were trying to get a letter from his stepfather’s doctor saying his health could be in danger if Philbrook were to serve as a juror. Philbrook is also concerned about his own health.

“You never know with this virus. It doesn’t seem to care, ”he said. “It doesn’t look like you’re healthy or unhealthy. You hear about healthy people who really suffer from it. That bothers me. I feel that I am in good health. I have a feeling, okay, if I take it I should be fine, but I don’t really know.

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