The Utah court system announced Friday that it plans to make a “cautious return” to jury trials as the coronavirus pandemic has left a backlog of hundreds of cases in its wake.
The first trial will take place in Salt Lake County on Jan. 25 followed by one in Duchesne County in early February, court officials said during a virtual news conference outlining the plans. Other districts around the state are currently putting together their own blueprints for how to reopen and are expected to follow suit soon.
“We’re quite excited about this,” 3rd District Judge Mark Kouris told reporters on Friday. “We’ve had a lot of jury trials that have been languishing and it’s absolutely killing us and now we’re getting the train back on the tracks if you will. We don’t take any part of this lightly.”
As part of the pilot project, the courts have consulted with medical experts and promised that “every possible safety measure will be employed” to protect Utahns chosen to serve as jurors.
Jury selection will take place electronically after those who received a jury notice in the mail fill out online surveys to prequalify. As of Friday, administrative office of the courts IT director Heidi Anderson said 2,100 people had already filled out their COVID jury survey for selection in the process.
Kouris indicated that, as part of the survey, the selection process will take into consideration a person’s individual circumstances in determining whether they will sit on the jury.
“Towards the end of it we say, ‘do you have any problems sitting at a trial based on this? Are you afraid even to come into the courthouse?’” he said. “Those questions will be looked at very carefully and for instance I think if a person said absolutely, they live with their elderly mother and they’re afraid they’re going to bring [COVID] home, that person, in my opinion at least ... I’m sure will be disqualified and won’t be brought back.”
After jury members have been chosen, they will be temperature checked when they arrive at the courthouse and will be required to wear masks at all times in the building, according to a video released by the courts outlining the new safety precautions. On the first day of trial, each juror will receive a rapid COVID test — along with all judges, bailiffs, attorneys, witnesses, defendants and court personnel involved in the proceedings — at an onsite testing center.
Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 will receive another test to confirm the result and will then be dismissed from the jury and referred to a health care provider, Kouris said. The courts plan to have a few extra jurors on hand to ensure the process can continue if someone has contracted the virus.
Kouris said the courts plan on doing one and two-day trials to get started, and jurors will be asked to fill out a symptom checklist on the second day. When long-running trials do begin again, the courts plan to rapid test jurors every two days.
Many people in the courtroom are expendable, Kouris said, noting that judges, clerks, bailiffs and court staff can all be replaced if necessary. But if a defendant or the defendant’s attorney tests positive, the case will likely end in a mistrial “because it’s not safe to go forward.”
Once they’ve tested negative to get inside the courtroom, all participants will be assigned to socially distanced seats for the duration of the trial, and the number of people in the room will be limited. Members of the public who are interested in tuning in will have the ability to stream live video of the trial through a “high definition camera and sound system.”
Witnesses will be in person and will be able to temporarily remove their masks when they provide testimony from a ventilated area “at a safe distance from all courtroom occupants.” After closing arguments, jurors will move to an empty courtroom with space for them to socially distance while they deliberate and decide the case.
Throughout the process, the courts have promised frequent cleaning of high-touch surfaces, including table tops and door handles, and that restrooms will be cleaned and sanitized regularly.
Few jury trials have taken place in Utah since the state’s Supreme Court halted all trials in mid-May over concerns about the coronavirus. The first trial since then happened in late October in Duchesne County, where court officials employed many of the same precautions outlined as part of the pilot project, including mask-wearing, health screenings and social distancing.
The Utah court system had previously planned to hold some jury trials with extra safety precautions at the end of last month but called off those plans in light of high positivity rates of COVID-19, the Deseret News reported.
Kouris said there are 165 people currently sitting in jail or prison awaiting a jury trial but that he expects that number to shrink as the process gets underway and people get more serious about taking plea deals or settling their cases. That number doesn’t include people who are out of custody.
“Our focus now are folks that are being held in jail that want their day in court,” he said.
He estimated that there are somewhere around 900 cases awaiting jury trial statewide, including both people who are in custody and out of custody.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said he appreciated efforts by the courts to consider the logistics of restarting jury trials and the advice of medical personnel and said that if those align, “we want to do everything in our power to get these cases adjudicated.”
“As the head of the Salt Lake County DA’s office, [I want to ensure] that when I’m sending my people to court … that we’re doing it in a way that does not put at risk our employees, court personnel, the victims, the defendants — that we’re doing everything in our power to ensure that safety,” he said in an interview.
Some states have experimented with jury trials through videoconferencing for lower-level cases, but there’s been little appetite from Utah attorneys to try a trial-by-Zoom here. Some argue that such a format would violate the Utah Constitution, which gives an accused person the right to appear and “defend in person.
- The Salt Lake Tribune will update this report