As jury trials resume in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia in downtown Charlottesville, local courts continue to develop safety plans.
Like all courts throughout the Commonwealth, criminal jury trials in Virginia’s Western District were temporarily suspended by a series of court orders during the COVID-19 pandemic, with various judges citing the health emergency as reasoning to exclude the Speedy Trial Act.
However, starting on Aug. 31, criminal jury trials were allowed to resume by an order from Chief U.S. District Judge Michael F. Urbanski. These trials are left to the discretion of the presiding judge based on the circumstances of each division.
According to Julie Dudley, clerk of court for the Western District of Virginia, no jury trials have occurred in the Charlottesville division since Aug. 31 but a jury trial did occur in the Abingdon division on Sept. 16.
An order from U.S. District Judge James P. Jones detailed some safety precautions for the breadth of the trial, including jury selection logistics and how parties are expected to deliver testimony.
Per Dudley, jury selection happened on Sept. 16 and consisted of two panels of 25 people reporting at different times.
“Jurors were screened using a questionnaire similar to the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s] screening questionnaire and jurors were also temperature screened,” she said. “We have masks and hand sanitizer distributed throughout the courtroom.”
A smaller courtroom was used to provide a place for the public to view the trial via video conferencing, Dudley said, and the main courtroom was reconfigured to allow for social distancing. Instead of being seated in the jury box, jurors were instead seated in the gallery.
Cases in which a defendant requests a trial by jury and in which the defendant does not want a continuance and does not intend to plead guilty are being prioritized, Dudley said.
Civil jury trials will to be continued as criminal jury trials take Constitutional precedence. Already, a prolific rally lawsuit targeting organizers of the 2017 Unite the Right rally has been pushed back at least six months from its original October start date.
Meanwhile, a few blocks away, officials with the Charlottesville Circuit Court are working on getting a plan for jury trials approved.
Charlottesville Clerk of Court Llezelle Dugger said that the Supreme Court of Virginia is requiring each circuit court to submit their safety plans for jury trials. Only circuit courts in four localities have received approval for their plans so far, according to information on the state supreme court website.
When drafting Charlottesville’s plan, Judge Richard E. Moore put together a jury transition team consisting of the city’s sheriff, the clerk’s office, the office of the city commonwealth’s attorney, the public defender’s office, court reporters and other stakeholders, Dugger said.
The plan submitted to the state supreme court has not yet been approved, Dugger said, and was returned with a few areas the higher court wants to the Charlottesville Circuit Court to make some tweaks to.
“Overall, apparently, the plan is good and then my understanding is that even after they approve it, there’s a 30-day lag before you can actually set trials,” Dugger said.
Assuming Charlottesville’s plan is approved by the end of September or partway through October, Dugger said it’s unlikely that any jury trials would be set before December. Realistically, jury trials likely won’t resume until January 2021, she said.
Charlottesville’s last jury trial ended on March 11, meaning the court could be looking at an approximate 10-month gap in jury trials if they resume in January, adding a significant burden to the court.
Late last month, renovations of the Charlottesville Circuit Court finished, which, in part, allowed for the creation of a smaller courtroom below the main courtroom. This smaller courtroom was designed with civil jury trials in mind and intended to help the court work through its bag-log of cases, Dugger said.
However, the courtroom was not designed with social distancing in mind and it remains to be seen how often toe courtroom will be able to be used.