The headlines about COVID-19 hospitalizations are bleak, and flowing from them come a stream of court orders pushing off trials. The Iowa Supreme Court has put a hold on all jury trials until February 1, 2021—the latest we’ve seen. From Iowa, naturally, we move to New Hampshire, where a trial scheduled to begin Thursday was canceled in light of rising infection rates and “limited air circulation” in the courthouse. Then on to South Carolina, where Charleston saw its first jury trial since February—a one-day criminal trial conducted yesterday. Plexiglass dividers were installed, temperatures were taken and masks were required, including for the judge. But this occurred against the background of criminal defense lawyer Chris Adams telling ABC-4 News in Charleston: “If we’re forcing people into an enclosed room, somebody’s going to get this virus and die.”
The US District Court for the District of Connecticut was poised to hold its first pandemic jury trial later this month. However, yesterday Judge Vanessa Barrett postponed the trial because, according to the Hartford Courant, “the court could not find enough jurors willing to sit in court and hear the evidence.” This was “a setback for the federal district court in Connecticut, where the judges have worked for months with virologists, air circulation experts, information technology consultants and others to configure a courtroom that could keep participants in a jury trial safe.” Jury questionnaires were sent to 150 prospective jurors. Seventy-two did not respond at all—an unusually high percentage. More than 50 were then excused for health reasons. Ultimately, the pool included only 19 prospective jurors, which is not enough to seat a 12-person jury. The defense declined to waive peremptory challenges and also declined a bench trial. All remaining 2020...
We’re talking about jury trials, of course. (Were you thinking of something else this morning?) Even as coronavirus cases spike, with 2,755 cases and 43 deaths yesterday, with positivity rates around 20%, Georgia is restarting state court jury trials. Some courts can’t accommodate social distancing, so trials will be held in civic centers, sports arenas, school gymnasiums or lodges associated with groups such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, according to Law.com. Criminal trials will take priority. In those counties that have announced specific procedures for conducting trials, if a juror tests positive in the middle of a trial, the show will go on.
The US District Court for the District of Massachusetts has sent out notices seeking information to reschedule federal civil jury trials for 2021. The rest of 2020 is off the table. Meanwhile, many courts that did restart their jury trial dockets are being forced to rethink that. In Tennessee, Memphis courts have put reopening plans on hold—including canceling the scheduled trial for the accused killer of NBA star Lorenzen Wright, which was scheduled to begin yesterday. Cincinnati courts canceled their jury trials, effective yesterday. In Idaho, only one county is open for jury trials. In Michigan, Livingston County postponed jury trials until further notice, as did all neighboring counties. On the other side of the coin, however, a jury trial is underway in a homicide case in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania (Allentown and Easton). And rural counties in North Carolina are launching their first trials this week.
As COVID-19 cases spike in most states, we’re seeing a familiar story, exemplified by Escambia County in Florida. WEAR-TV reports: “Jury trials have come to a halt in the [First Judicial Circuit Court of Florida] in Escambia County after a spike in COVID-19 cases. Jury trials had only restarted just a few weeks ago. However, the court was able to complete only five trials, as Chief Judge John Miller is ordering a suspension of trials for the next two weeks.” These stories tend to focus on state courts, because most federal courts never reopened at all.
Jury trials were scheduled to resume in state court in Massachusetts on October 23. Amid a rise in confirmed cases of COVID-19 around the state, the earliest potential start date has been pushed back by the Supreme Judicial Court until November 9. Massachusetts ranks third in the nation in per capita deaths but has held its numbers down during the summer and fall. Meanwhile, in Youngtown, Ohio, an attempt to hold a jury trial in a vehicular homicide case went off the road. Forty people were summoned for jury duty. One tested positive for COVID-19. Another had symptoms and was transported away for further testing. An additional seven members were already awaiting test results, which is enough to avoid jury service. With a quarter of the jury pool eliminated, a jury could not be selected. This would have been the fifth jury trial in Mahoning County since the courthouse reopened in July, but Ohio cases are heading in the wrong direction.
More on last week’s remarkable opinion by former Chief Judge Cormac Carney of the US District Court for the Central District of California. So far, this story seems to have merited coverage by the Los Angeles Times and this blog, but nowhere else. Judge Carney’s opinion is 20 pages, with exhibits documenting his facts. He begins with the old trial lawyer’s favorite Thomas Jefferson quote: “I consider the trial by jury as the only anchor, ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.” Then, after some history, he writes: Sadly, the United States District Court for the Central District of California has denied Defendant Jeffery Olsen his Sixth Amendment right to a public and speedy trial on the criminal charges that were filed against him in this case. Specifically, the Chief Judge for the Central District refused to summon the jurors necessary to conduct Mr. Olsen’s trial that was scheduled for October 13th...
Most of the federal trials that have actually been held during the pandemic have been in rural locales. But yesterday, Judge William Orrick in San Francisco launched an in-person criminal jury trial in a mail-bombing case. Jury selection began with a SurveyMonkey questionnaire. The courtroom is closed to the public but the audio is being broadcast over Zoom to all interested observers. Meanwhile, Cleveland saw its first pandemic jury trial end Friday after five days with the acquittal of an accused murderer. The state court trial was held in a large conference room in the county-owned Global Center for Health Innovation. Everyone was masked except for testifying witnesses. Jurors sat six feet apart behind a plexiglass shield and with shields between them.
Earlier this week we told you that a New Jersey court was conducting voir dire partially by Zoom. The defendant objected that the process is unconstitutional because it yields a jury pool that is not a cross-section of the community. Now the court of appeals has halted the trial while it considers the issue. This result may be cited in criminal and civil jury trials nationwide, in both federal and state court. The issue of forming a representative jury pool in the midst of the pandemic has been worrying the judiciary for many months. Notably, the New Jersey Law Journal article on this case bears the headline “Appeals Court Halts State’s 1st Post-COVID-19 Jury Trial After Jury Selection Challenged.” But of course, we are not post-COVID-19. We are mid-COVID-19.
New Jersey’s first jury trial of the pandemic is underway in Bergen County. It’s a criminal trial, with the defendant accused of trying to set fire to his ex-wife’s home. Voir dire began last week, beginning with Zoom-based voir dire. Now the defendant has moved to suspend the trial until alleged constitutional deficiencies can be corrected or until “normal” jury selection can resume. The defendant raises issues that the judiciary has been grappling with since the pandemic began, writing: Bergen County’s implementation of electronic notifications, electronic jury questionnaire submissions, and Zoom-based voir dire has limited an entire socioeconomic group’s participation in jury service. Those who cannot afford a computer are eliminated from jury service because they cannot submit questionnaires. Others who cannot afford internet service are prevented from appearing at the initial stages of jury selection by Zoom. Furthermore, those who lost their jobs during...