CORONAVIRUS

Pilot jury trials vet court coronavirus protocols

Plans being worked out for resuming jury trials in Linn and Johnson

Kellee Cortez, 6th Judicial District court administrator, has been involved in discussions on how to safely resume jury
Kellee Cortez, 6th Judicial District court administrator, has been involved in discussions on how to safely resume jury trial later this month in Linn County. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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Two judges who oversaw pilots of jury trials under pandemic protocols last month in Muscatine and Scott counties said those tapped for jury selection showed up, and only a few were dismissed because of their coronavirus concerns.

The Iowa Supreme Court has ordered jury trials to resume the week of Sept. 14 in all eight judicial districts across the state. The “Jumpstart Jury Trial Task Force,” in its report of how to resume such trials safely during the health crisis, recommended a few pilots to test how they would work under coronavirus restrictions.

Courthouse operations have been limited and jury trials have been on hold since March to reduce foot traffic in the courthouses and prevent the spread of the virus.

Off-site jury selection

The pilot trials involved misdemeanor cases. Jury selection for both was conducted off-site to provide space for social distancing. But the trials and deliberations were at the courthouses.

Seventh Judicial District Judge Thomas Reidel, who conducted jury selection for his trial at Central Middle School in Muscatine, said a larger number of residents than usual was summoned case some individuals didn’t show up. But that didn’t become an issue.

Reidel said only two jurors had concerns about the coronavirus because of the size of the crowd and the uncertainty of the precautions. Those with such concerns were allowed to defer their jury duty until spring.

Reidel said the court will use the school site again when trials resume; and may hold the entire trial at the school.

The Muscatine and Scott county sheriff’s offices worked with the courts to provide security at the school.

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Judge Henry Latham, presiding over jury selection for Scott County District Court, held jury selection at the River Center, a convention center in Davenport only five blocks from the courthouse. The city donated the space to the court for this pilot.

The center has capacity for 70 people in the room used and about 300 in the convention center — plenty of space for those in the jury pool waiting to be questioned, Latham noted.

He said jury selection was similar to the normal routine but with social distancing and required face masks or shields, which are supplied by the court.

Latham and Reidel both called up groups of eight prospective jurors at a time at a time for the attorneys to question. Then there was a break so the seats could be sanitized before the next group moved up.

Latham said the only issue he encountered were that the microphones weren’t consistently working. But the convention center staff said that would be resolved before the court used the facility again.

Reidel said the jury selection may have taken 30 to 45 minutes longer than usual. He said he suggests other judges tell the prospective jurors at the beginning of selection process about safety precautions the court has taken.

“The jurors had an incredibly positive attitude throughout the process,” Reidel said.

Once the jurors were selected, both judges had them report to the courthouses to begin the trial.

In both courthouses, the courtrooms that were used allowed the jurors to be spread out.

The Muscatine and Scott jurors stayed in the courtrooms for deliberations, the judges said.

“All individuals involved in this trial responded positively and felt adequate safety measures were taken in response to COVID-19 concerns,” Latham said. “I believe the hard work in preparing for trials paid off.”

Plans for trials here

Kellee Cortez, 6th Judicial District court administrator, said she was surprised there weren’t more dismissals because of coronavirus concerns. She and Chief Judge Patrick Grady have discussed different possibilities for handling trials. After experiencing the 2008 flood when the courthouse was damaged and courts were relocated to Kirkwood Community College for a time, they decided not to move jury selection or trials out of the courthouse.

Cortez said there were security, computer network, sound system issues and other problems then, and they decided it makes more sense to stay in the courthouse.

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“Linn has ample space and we’ve decided to have trials on the fourth floor in the two largest courtrooms,” Cortez said. “We will have one trial at a time and see how it goes.”

Cortez said there are a “handful” of criminal cases on the priority list set for trial in September, but some could be resolved before trial with a plea or may be reset to a later date. There may be only one or two misdemeanor cases headed to trial, and those could be one- to three-day events.

Before the pandemic, there typically would be several misdemeanor cases and possibly more than one felony case set for trial each week.

Cortez acknowledged the high number of cases in Linn County and the even higher numbers in Johnson County.

She said everyone is concerned about keeping the jurors safe, and if any have health issues or don’t feel comfortable serving, they can ask for deferment and be rescheduled to a later time.

Affect on jurors

Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness said she has concerns with the soaring numbers of new COVID-19 cases in the county and how that would affect prospective jurors willingness to serve and whether it could create issues with witnesses willing to come into court to testify.

There also may be some defendants with concerns about coming to court — fearful of exposure or worried about how jurors might regard having to serve during the pandemic, she added.

Lyness said the logistics of how to start trials again still is being worked out. They have considered going outside the courthouse to have jury selection, like the pilot trials, because of limited space but haven’t found a place yet.

Working on solutions

Lyness and defense attorneys both said this crisis has encouraged them to cooperate more to find possible resolutions or agree to delay more serious felony cases. Both don’t want situations where jurors might rush to judgment because they are worried about becoming ill.

Rachel Antonuccio, an Iowa City defense lawyer, said she has a client charged with a serious felony who could face over 30 years if convicted. They decided to further delay his trial.

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Her client has serious health risks and Antonuccio also is at risk because she is over seven months’ pregnant.

Antonuccio said her client now has to wait until January but he accepts that — as opposed to possibly getting jurors who are distracted by the pandemic and want to hurry deliberations.

Lyness said that for now the tentative plan is to use the largest courtroom on third floor. Potential jurors may be divided up in groups in morning and afternoon sessions, which may take longer but may be a solution to get started.

They are also trying to use more juror questionnaires sent out before trial to those scheduled for jury duty, which can eliminate some who might have health risks or are experiencing symptoms from coming into courthouse.

Lyness said there is only one serious felony case slated for Sept. 29 but she doesn’t know if it will go or not. She wasn’t sure how many misdemeanor trials were set for the week of Sept. 14 and that number can change, depending on any pleas before then.

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

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.