After a four month pause due to the coronavirus pandemic, jury trials are set to start up again in Grant County courts next Monday, July 13, with several big changes implemented to follow CDC and local health department guidelines.
Grant County Superior Court 1 Judge Jeffrey D. Todd said jury trials stopped in mid March, but other court proceedings such as civil proceedings and criminal guilty pleas, sentencings, probation violations and initial hearings have continued to take place through the stay-at-home order and phased reopening. While the courthouse was and still is closed to the general public, those with business before the courts have been permitted to come in and some civil hearings have been held virtually, he said.
“So we’re getting away from the remote hearings slowly, where more and more things now are just in court,’’ Todd said. “The courthouse is still not open to the public, but we’ve been able to work around that and we’re hopeful that we can start opening the building to the public in limited numbers perhaps in the middle of July, but that’s not yet been determined.”
Todd said he was designated the emergency judge for Grant County, which meant he has been responsible for working with the Indiana Supreme Court, county health officer William David Moore and his fellow judges to formulate a plan for a safe return to jury trials and further reopening.
The state Supreme Court issued a deadline that jury trials must resume no later than Aug. 17, but Todd said it was always the plan to start as soon as safely possible in Grant County after the Supreme Court approved the plan. Both Moore and the Supreme Court have approved the county courts’ plan to start July 13, Todd said.
“We believe we can do it safely. It’s impossible to eliminate all risk, but we’re going to do our very best. It’s just been hard because we’re not doctors, we’re not health officers, so we’ve had to rely on experts and think about things that judges don’t normally think about,” Todd said. “We think about public safety a lot, maintaining the courtroom during contentious trials, but that’s security more than safety, and lately our focus has been on safety.”
The biggest change to county jury trials will be the setting for jury selection, Todd said. Since the courtrooms are not large enough to ensure safe social distancing, Todd said jury selection will take place at the Baker Recital Hall inside the Phillippe Performing Arts Center on Indiana Wesleyan’s campus through Aug. 18 and then shift to Ivy Tech’s Marion campus when IWU resumes classes.
Prospective jurors have been sent a letter outlining how jury selection will take place, according to Todd.
When they arrive, potential jurors will have their temperatures taken and will be sent home if the temperature is above normal, and optional gloves will be available for those who want them. Jurors will be required to wear a mask or face covering or be provided one while having their temperature taken and moving to their seats, but will not be required to keep the masks on when seated since they will be socially distanced at least 6 feet from others.
Potential jurors, as well as witnesses during trials, will not be permitted to wear a face mask when speaking to the court, Todd said.
“Selection of a jury or observing a witness requires you to hear more than a voice, you need to see facial expressions,” he said. “When we do take breaks and jurors leave their seat during jury selection, they’ll be required to resume their face covering.”
Once juries are selected at the off-site locations, the jury trials will take place at the courthouse, but jurors and alternate jurors will be socially distanced throughout the courtroom instead of all of them sitting together in the jury box.
Members of the public will not be permitted to attend jury selection or the trials in person, but every portion of the jury trials from beginning to end will be recorded and live streamed to Grant County Council chambers at the county building to comply with the constitutional mandate for court proceedings to be open to the public.
“Normally you can’t have cameras in the courtroom, but the Indiana Supreme Court is making an exception for the COVID-19 pandemic and we’ll have a camera and a microphone streaming the proceedings to the Grant County Council chambers,” Todd said. “So spectators will actually watch the trial from across the street.”
Todd said while everything is subject to change and he could only make a guess, he imagines the new jury trial procedures will continue at least through the end of 2020 and possibly until a COVID-19 vaccine is developed and readily available in Grant County.
He could only speak for Superior Court 1, but Todd said the pause in jury trials has created a “manageable” backlog for civil cases and a more urgent backlog for criminal cases. Typically each court has 10-15 jury trials scheduled on a particular day with most getting resolved, he said, but right now it is looking like there will be closer to 25 jury trials in Superior Court 1 scheduled on a single day.
“It’s a problem... Most of the courts almost every week we’ll have a jury trial. There’s no way to avoid the backlog,” Todd said. “We’re hopeful we can resolve most of those cases by means of an agreement of some sort, but if you resolve one, you’ve still got 24 that are in the hopper and need to be resolved. And you can only try them one at a time.”
Todd said the court’s plan for jury trials is based upon science and has the approval of health professionals, but it is still impossible to ensure 100 percent safety from COVID-19 or other factors. He said he is concerned prospective jurors won’t show up, but he encouraged those called to do so to remember the plan has been thoroughly vetted to be as safe as possible.
“Jury service is really the second highest form of public service that an American can perform, second only to the armed forces,” Todd said. “We’ve had the right to trial by jury in the Constitution since 1791. And we understand that jury service is an imposition, but it’s a fundamental principle to our freedom and our system of government.”