As circuit court jury trials resume in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, some kinks are still being ironed out.
Jury trials had been on hold statewide since March when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Due to emergency orders from the Supreme Court of Virginia, jury trials were continued for months, with various judges citing the health emergency as reasoning to exclude the Speedy Trial Act.
With growing dockets and constitutional requirements, the state supreme court began accepting safety plans for jury trials from each circuit court earlier this fall. So far, 29 localities’ plans have been approved.
According to Jon Zug, Albemarle County Circuit Court clerk, the court held its first jury trial last month. The three-day criminal trial was not without its hiccups, Zug said, as limitations caused by social distancing needs posed a challenge for accommodating jurors, case parties and the public.
The most significant change is where the jury is seated, Zug said, which is in the gallery instead of in front of the judge’s dais. Twenty jurors can be seated in the gallery, he said, which leaves little room for members of the public.
Though the county court has now placed a closed-circuit television in a smaller, secondary courtroom upstairs for the public to view proceedings, Zug said this system was not in place during the county’s first post-COVID jury trial.
“We did not have the closed-circuit television system operating at the time of the first trial, so we had to have the people who were watching the trial sit on the edges of what is effectively the jury box while the jury was hearing the case, and that was not good,” he said. “Some had to be sitting out in the hallway and we had to prop the doors open to the courtroom, but that aspect has been remedied.”
However, with the second courtroom now planned to be used for public viewing, Zug said there is now the issue of what to do with potential jurors who cannot safely fit into the courtroom during the jury selection process.
During the October trial, the weather was nice and so excess jurors were able to wait outside, but as winter comes, Zug said this will no longer be a tenable solution.
“We can’t have people wait outside in the cold and the rain and this is also an issue for the General District Court next door because their dockets are getting kind of long,” he said. “So I’ve let our judges know that we need to work on a solution for that.”
Zug said he anticipates the county courts will continue to tweak their operations over the coming months. On Monday, the county will begin its first civil jury trial since the pandemic began, and Zug said he expects it will test their latest batch of fixes.
“Nobody living has ever had to go through this, because the last time we were in this situation would have been between 1918 and 1921 and realistically nobody’s alive from that time period to tell us how the hell they did it,” he said.
In Charlottesville, the city Circuit Court held its first jury trial earlier this month, putting its recently approved plan to the test, according to Clerk of Court Llezelle Dugger.
“A plan is only as good as it is until you actually try to put it into action, and we were pleasantly relieved that it went exactly how we hoped it would go,” Dugger said.
The recently renovated city circuit courthouse can fit a few more jurors in it than its Albemarle counterpart, accommodating 25 jurors in the main courtroom’s gallery, Dugger said. During jury selection, an additional nine jurors were placed in a newly created courtroom below the main one and four were placed in the lobby. In all, 40 potential jurors were summoned, she said, though not all were able to show.
“The reality of the situation is that during voir dire, the courtroom is full due to social distancing, so there’s no room for the general public to come in because every space is taken by a prospective juror,” Dugger said. “Once the jury was selected, we brought them up to the front of the gallery, filling up the first four rows, and then opened up the back for members of the public to come in to watch.”
Now unable to use the jury room for deliberations, Dugger said that instead the bailiffs emptied the courtroom of all non-jurors and allowed them to use the space for deliberation and sentencing recommendation.
The one-day trial went smoothly, Dugger said, and feedback from the jurors afterward was affirming.
“They said they felt safe and they felt like we took into account their social distancing and they were very thankful for that,” she said. “So I think we’re going to tweak some of our plans, but nothing overall.”
Among those potential tweaks is selecting a jury panel the day before the trial is set to start, helping to speed up the process.