After an eight-month hiatus, jury trials will resume in much of North Carolina in November. But the change won’t be wholesale, as three of North Carolina’s most populous counties are delaying their start until 2021, while others are moving courtroom functions into school auditoriums to help ensure a socially distanced environment.
North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley issued an order on Oct. 15 allowing counties to resume trials next month. All courts must observe social distancing and provide face masks, daily temperature and health screenings and hand sanitizer.
Beasley said that if someone involved in a trial tests positive for COVID-19, the situation will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, depending on who tests positive and who is at risk for exposure. For example, if a juror tests positive, an alternate could replace them. But if an attorney or a judge tests positive, “that makes it a little more complicated,” Beasley said. Judges will have the discretion of what course of action to take, and they can seek guidance from the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts.
Beasley’s order comes after superior court senior resident judges submitted their safety plans for courtroom proceedings–although some smaller counties are getting creative about what a “courtroom” looks like amid a pandemic and are planning to hold voir dire and trials in unconventional locations like school auditoriums, Beasley said. That means that local sheriffs will have to have input regarding security concerns.
But Beasley said that Wake, Durham, and Forsyth counties are taking a different approach and have opted to delay jury trials until next year because they want to make sure they are “absolutely prepared” and are waiting to see the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic in North Carolina, where the number of confirmed transmissions has increased worryingly in recent weeks.
The Judicial Branch is working closely with public health officials to monitor the pandemic and make sure it has a good sense of its direction, but is encouraged by the fact that other states that have already resumed trials haven’t seen COVID-19 outbreaks as a result. Tennessee, for example, has had around 30 jury trials since it resumed them and has not reported any problems, Beasley said.
Lisa Johnson-Tonkins, Guilford County’s clerk of court, said that she and other Guilford County judicial officials have planned extensively to resume trials in November. The seats in the jury boxes have been unbolted, and jurors will sit at least six feet apart. Acrylic sheets have been installed at attorneys’ tables and witness stands.
Officials have reserved a large space in the courthouse for summoned jurors to assemble and have an overflow room with audio and visual equipment that jurors will use for orientation. Potential jurors will also fill out questionnaires to speed up the voir dire process and will be provided face masks and face shields.
“If you go to the grocery store and restaurants, it’s really no different, except we are providing PPE so you can be safe while serving,” Johnson-Tonkins said.
Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzonclw