Douglas County’s jury trial plan approved; court can use fairgrounds buildings to allow for social distancing
photo by: Douglas County District Court/Contributed Image
Douglas County District Court has gotten approval for a plan to resume holding jury trials, though it’s still not clear when that might actually happen.
The plan involves using buildings at the Douglas County Fairgrounds, including health questionnaires with juror summonses, and lots of masks and hand sanitizer.
The Kansas Supreme Court suspended time limits and deadlines in court cases because of COVID-19 in March. In May, it created an ad hoc jury trial task force to analyze the issues that the courts would face once jury trials resumed. The chief judges of each judicial district were tasked with creating a plan to hold trials safely while upholding the law and protecting the rights of defendants.
Douglas County’s plan was recently approved by the state Office of Judicial Administration, though it’s still looking unlikely that any trials will be held before the end of the year, according to Douglas County District Court Chief Judge James McCabria.
Many court functions have been adapted to be held via videoconference. The Kansas Supreme Court’s jury trial task force — chaired by Douglas County District Court Judge Amy Hanley — recommended that courts consider holding grand juries and jury trials in civil cases virtually. However, it said the courts should conduct criminal jury trials in person unless a defendant waives the right to in-person proceedings.
“(R)egardless of any plan or administrative order, people should know that the judges are keeping health and safety foremost in mind as we make decisions on how to balance the interests at stake in any given case, civil or criminal,” McCabria said via email Tuesday.
The 13-page plan for Douglas County states that courtrooms are an option to hold jury trials, but Building 21 and the Flory Meeting Hall at the fairgrounds are also options. The buildings will have sufficient space to accommodate jury selection and to permit confidential conversations between attorneys and clients, according to the plan.
Juror summonses will be sent with additional questions regarding COVID-19 — potential exposure, higher risk, whether the juror has children at home who require direct supervision because of school closings and more. Those questionnaires will not be shared with prosecutors or defense counsel, but the chief judge will review requests for deferrals or excuses from jury service, according to the plan.
The court will send out additional summonses for each scheduled trial to assure that enough potential jurors appear. Some cases may include extra alternate jurors, as well.
“Each division will consider the loss of a greater number of seated jurors during the pandemic due to illness or the need to care for sick family members,” the plan states. “As such, judges shall keep this in mind when considering the number of alternate jurors to seat.”
All prospective jurors who report for duty will be subject to health screenings. For “many cases,” jury selection may require small panels to report at staggered intervals to minimize interaction, according to the plan. Wireless microphones will be used, on a stand or transported by the bailiff, to avoid passing them among panel members.
Court staff will clean and sanitize common surfaces and those touched by witnesses throughout trials. Jurors will each receive a pen, notepad, hand sanitizer and badge in an individual plastic bag to use throughout the trial. The court will also provide disposable face masks to those who need them.
Less than 2% of Douglas County District Court criminal cases that were resolved during fiscal year 2019 went to jury trials, according to statistics from the Kansas Judicial Branch. However, the court does anticipate that concurrent trials will be necessary because of the backlog of cases, according to the plan.
New cases of COVID-19 have been on the rise again. Last week, Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health announced that the local health officer’s order would once again restrict mass gatherings to 15 or fewer people. However, McCabria said he confirmed with the health department that since the plan calls for maintaining 6 feet between all people during jury selection or a trial, the court could still hold trials while that order is in place.
Chief Justice Marla Luckert of the Kansas Supreme Court issued an order on Friday to continue the suspension of speedy trial statutes through Dec. 15, 2020. In addition, Chief Judge Julie Robinson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas on Monday issued an administrative order suspending jury trials in federal court through Jan. 4, 2021.
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