Jury Trials Begin Again, Carefully

By: - May 29, 2020 12:00 am

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PORTLAND, Ore. — On a drizzly spring day in mid-May, potential grand jurors lined up 6 feet apart outside the Multnomah County Courthouse.

Raincoats and umbrellas dripping, they filed one by one into the courthouse and through a metal detector, all the while maintaining appropriate social distance from court employees. Most visitors wore masks, which the court encouraged and made available for free but did not require. Nearly all court employees wore face coverings.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, had issued a stay-at-home order to slow the spread of COVID-19 nearly two months before, and it applied to all but the most urgent of judicial proceedings. But Multnomah County, home to Portland, like many places requires grand juries to hear all felony criminal cases.

That meant the county’s docket of pending cases was “bursting at the seams,” said Circuit Judge Cheryl Albrecht, the county’s chief criminal judge, in an interview.

Oregon requires that defendants in custody go to trial within 60 days, with an extension to no more than 180 days from their detention. So criminal judges in Multnomah County needed not only to begin holding jury trials, but to convene at least one new grand jury to begin weighing criminal charges in pending felony investigations.  

“Crime doesn’t stop in a pandemic,” Albrecht said.

Neither does the business of the courts. Over the next several weeks and months, courts around the country must figure out how to resume operations in a way that keeps employees and visitors safe, yet also safeguards the constitutional guarantee to a jury trial.

Even the U.S. Supreme Court has had to adjust to the pandemic, with justices hearing oral arguments over the telephone and, for the first time, streaming the proceedings to the public live.

But jury trials are especially fraught, because they require assembling a pool of potentially hundreds of people at a time in enclosed spaces, where it can be difficult to follow the social distancing and crowd control guidelines issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The courts are trying to be very, very cautious and thoughtful about how they do it, in a way that is responsible to their communities, responsible to the jurors, responsible to everybody else in the courthouse,” said Paula Hannaford-Agor, director of the Center for Juries Studies at the National Center for State Courts in Virginia.

Some courts see in the pandemic an opportunity to test virtual technology that could stay in place after the crisis. But that raises questions about fairness and jurors who lack internet access.

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