Amid the economic shutdowns of the pandemic of 2020, state courthouses also closed. Though courts were quick to respond by hosting virtual hearings, jury trials were slower to adapt. Courts had to place an integral part of the U.S. justice system on hold.
Now, after a few months of quarantine measures, courts get creative in bringing jury trials back. With a backlog of important cases requiring a jury, lawmakers seek to restore these basic American rights with practical and technological solutions.
A changing legal landscape
In New Mexico, courtrooms look drastically different. Plexiglass shielding surrounds the witness box and divides lawyers from their clients while the jury sits 6-feet apart in the public seating areas. Lawyers must pass notes to their clients through the plexiglass between them. For clients that cannot read, attorneys like Roberta Yurcic must still risk exposure. With her family’s wellbeing at the forefront, Yurcic does not believe these measures offer significant protection.
In Minnesota, when a staff member of the court that held the first jury trial since the beginning of the pandemic fell ill with the virus, a judge halted jury trials again. A Dallas court held a jury trial via Zoom, a popular web-based virtual meeting platform. Attorneys worry that their clients will not get a fair trial under these conditions. Lawyers fear that masks hide facial expressions vital to jury deliberation, and jurors who worry for their personal safety will rush through deliberations to get home faster.
New ways to preserve justice
In North Carolina, a federal court has gone to great lengths to see justice through. A nurse takes everyone’s temperature before entering, turning away those deemed a risk. When a witness leaves the witness stand, a clerk sanitizes the chair and everything they touched. Lawyers and judges use walkie-talkies and white noise to have private bench conversations. When the first jury trial since the pandemic concluded with a “not guilty” verdict, all court personnel involved reflected on the importance of justice even amid a national emergency. Court clerk Frank Johns says the defendant would “still be sitting in prison” had the trial not occurred.
An attorney can provide more information
Those facing criminal charges likely have questions about their upcoming trial. A local attorney familiar with criminal defense can help provide context, work with court officials on safe practices and build a comprehensive defense.