HANCOCK COUNTY — Judges were set last week to test their new courtroom safety protocol for a 12-person jury, but the case was settled through a plea agreement and the trial never took place.
Still, after suspending jury trials for months, the courts are pushing forward to resume them — maybe as soon as today (Tuesday, July 28) in Hancock County Superior Court 2.
Dozens of potential jurors will be summoned in the coming months as the courts try to balance public safety amid the pandemic and defendants’ right to a trial.
“The biggest concern after ensuring a fair trial, is the safety for jurors,” said Judge Scott Sirk of Hancock County Circuit Court, who was set to preside over the jury trial last week before the case was settled. The jury would have had 12 members and two alternates.
To alleviate any concerns potential jurors might have, in addition to wearing masks, jurors will be seated 6 feet apart, and only 25 may be seated in the courtroom at a time during the jury selection process. Trials in Circuit Court and Hancock County Superior Court 1 will be held in the Circuit Court courtroom because it’s the largest one at the courthouse.
The Superior Court 1 courtroom and the commissioner’s courtroom will now be used to hold the jury pool while a jury is being selected, Sirk said, and two additional bailiffs and a law clerk will be deputized to assist with jury safety and make sure safety protocol is followed.
Court officials have tried to think of every potential issue that could affect jury safety, including simple things like wrapping food individually and using golf pencils when a potential juror signs in so they can be disposed of immediately and no one uses the same writing utensil. Plus, each juror’s temperature will be checked before they are allowed to be considered for a jury.
Judge Dan Marshall, who presides in Superior Court 2, said his court is set to have several jury trials starting as soon as today. Marshall is confident about jury safety and is prepared to welcome prospective jurors into his courtroom. Superior Court 2 trials typically are heard by six-person juries.
“We have worked out safety procedures that comply with guidelines provided by state court administration,” Marshall said.
Twelve-person juries will not sit in the jury box in Circuit Court. They instead will occupy the first two rows of public seating, which is more spread out. Then two rows behind them will be blocked off so no one in the public area can get close to the jurors.
“The law clerks will be positioned to make sure no one approaches or goes near the jury,” Sirk said.
That means fewer members of the public will be allowed into the courtroom to watch a trial. Those who are allowed inside must wear a mask and observe distancing.
Attorneys and courtroom staff will wear masks, and each courtroom will have its own protocol. Sirk, who at times has not worn a mask in the courtroom since he is seated several feet away from everyone, will also wear a mask during trials, he said. The bailiffs and law clerks will be required to wear masks and gloves.
All the new safety measures likely will slow the jury selection process, Sirk noted. Potential jurors who feel uneasy will be dismissed.
Prosecutor Brent Eaton noted it’s important for potential jurors to feel like they can fulfill a civic duty without putting their health at risk.
“The prosecutor’s office is going to do everything we can in partnership with the judiciary and the defense bar to see the people in this community are safe so that we can have trials,” Eaton said.
Jury participation has always been solid in the county, Eaton noted, meaning the courts have not had issues with getting county residents to show up and take part in a jury trial like other counties do.
“The system cannot function without community participation, so we’ve got to do everything we can to make sure they are safe,” Eaton said.
Court officials are also working together to make sure there is less traffic in the courthouse the day of jury selection and have moved cases to other days to limit pedestrian traffic.
Eaton said they are not pushing any harder to reach plea agreements because of the pandemic: If a case warrants a trial, one will be held. But, he insisted, the process will be done safely.
“All of us live here,” Eaton said. “All of us pretty much know others who live here, and none of us want to do anything to cause someone’s family to be ill.”