CORONAVIRUS

Iowa federal court prepares to bring back juries

Grand jury could resume this month, jury trials in June

CEDAR RAPIDS — Federal court officials have made contingency plans to go forward with grand jury proceedings after May 11 — and possibly trials that are on the docket after June 1 — but there will be safety precautions in place.

Robert Phelps, administrator of the U.S. Northern District of Iowa, said Chief Judge Leonard Strand has amended a previous order on federal grand juries and trial juries, but it’s dependent on recommendations from Gov. Kim Reynolds, public health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Restrictions on group sizes and social distancing for Linn and Woodbury counties — where both Northern District courthouses are located — haven’t been lifted.

Reynolds’s orders affecting these counties expire May 15 unless she changes them by then.

Phelps said if a grand jury is called later this month, the courts have enough space for social distancing. The grand jurors serve two-year terms and have already been selected.

“The plan is to move the proceedings into one of the largest courtrooms we have, so that everyone is a minimum of 6 feet apart,” Phelps said. “A grand jury of 16 to 20 people will be spaced out in whatever courtroom we use” because the public isn’t allowed in the courtroom during grand jury proceedings.

Phelps said he and jury administrators have been talking with members of the grand jury about the precautions they plan to take to protect their health and provide a safe environment.

“Most people understand the serious nature of the judicial process, appreciate the extra steps we are taking for their protection, and are ready to serve whenever we move forward,” he said.

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Phelps acknowledged a few jurors expressed concern. He said court officials will look at which jurors fall into the most at-risk categories established by the CDC and some could be excused from serving.

A grand jury requires 16 impartial people to listen to evidence and witnesses presented by a prosecutor who lays out an outline of the case.

The jurors then vote on whether they believe there’s probable cause to indict or charge a person with a federal crime.

Phelps said grand jurors would be asked to wear masks as long as restrictions are in place. The court would provide one if a grand juror didn’t already have one that is appropriate.

The custodial staff has been doing an “excellent” job of sanitizing and doing extra cleanings throughout the federal courthouses in Cedar Rapids and Sioux City, he said.

If jury trials go forward starting in June, the same basic guidelines for social distancing and sanitizing of courthouses will be followed.

Phelps said 12 jurors and two alternates for a criminal trial would be spaced apart in the jury box, and chairs would be added in front of it. During jury selection, the prospective jurors, not in the immediate panel being questioned, would be seated in two or more other courtrooms to allow social distancing and could watch a livestream of the selection process.

Strand, in his order, said if the defense or prosecution wants a continuance of a trial set for June 1 or after due to public health concerns, the presiding judge would have discretion to consider the request.

Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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