Jury Trials on Pause as COVID Cases Rise

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Jury Trials on Pause as COVID Cases Rise
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States across the country are postponing jury trials in response to rising COVID-19 cases. This spike in positive COVID cases was predicted earlier in the year, and certainly seems to be coming to fruition. While this spike is already leading to lockdowns and increased restrictions, businesses and home life are not the only areas affected. The court systems that just appeared to be catching up from the last nationwide shutdown are closing once again, reverting to virtual means of operation and pushing back jury trials to a later date.

Defense attorneys in these jurisdictions have been quick to point out the challenges this shutdown poses.

Despite the necessity of social distancing and proper sanitization of group areas to prevent spread of the virus, it’s not surprising that closing the courts has resulted in a myriad of difficulties in regard to the cancellations. Some courts have decided to allow essential proceedings to continue, following COVID-19 safety precautions, while cases considered “nonessential” will be rescheduled for a later date.

Lawyers across the country are already pressing the matter of court dates for clients whose cases were labeled nonessential when in reality, the effects of a postponement for that individual’s case could have deeply negative ramifications for the person’s life and family. Elizabeth Nevins-Saunders, a New York attorney, has expressed concern that the delay in many of these long-awaited jury trials may act as a sort of pressure, convincing defendants to plead guilty or accept a plea deal they might otherwise not have.

Zoom trials are likely to continue and increase in the coming months.

In the wake of the first shutdown, many courts turned to video conferencing as a means by which to conduct jury trials. The ability for jurors to listen to the presentation of evidence remotely and make a decision regarding the defendant’s guilt or liability has been extremely important in the continued operation of the justice system. In-person jury trials had only recently begun again, but the increase in coronavirus cases marks a significant need for backpedaling in the court system’s approach to COVID prevention.

This postponement of jury trials does not apply to every court, but is predicted to continue in infected areas.

Not every court is backpedaling. In locations where COVID cases have remained relatively consistent or have decreased, jury trials are continuing a slow return to in-person proceedings; however, for any sort of in-person hearing or meeting conducted in a courtroom, visitors must first undergo temperature checks and symptom screenings to prevent infected individuals from entering the courthouse. Courthouses in largely unaffected areas are less likely to enforce stringent covid precautions, such as remote jury trials. Some courts have installed clear partitions and spread juror seats farther apart to coincide with social distancing guidelines for indoor events. High-risk individuals are allowed to request remote participation, even for those jury trials still planning to be held in-person.

However, with the predicted increase of COVID-19 cases looking like it will be confirmed, many courthouses appear to be waiting for an official word on the matter from a federal level. In the meantime, attorneys and justice system employees will continue working to make sure essential cases are handled as soon as possible, and only those matters which are truly nonessential are forced to undergo postponement.

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