MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - Having your day in court is a constitutional right, but that right’s been heavily complicated by COVID-19.
This week, jury trials resumed in Montgomery County for the first time since the state issued a suspension in March.
Prior to the pandemic, a light criminal docket of any kind was the exception, not the rule in Montgomery. Trial weeks started with hundreds of potential jurors pouring in for multiple trials, often filling up nearly every circuit courtroom on each floor.
Court administrator LaShandra Warren-Barnes and her team strategized for months about how to juggle scheduling, safety and logistics.
The most notable change allows potential jurors to qualify online, something nearly every potential juror did before reporting this week.
“When we send out the summons it has a website on there where they can go online and qualify before they get here,” Barnes stated. “The website basically walks them through it, there’s two different sets of questions that they have to fill out and we receive their answers to those questions.”
Those answers help Barnes and her team determine the size of the potential jury pools and whether anyone needs to be excused. It also helps attorneys jump start the jury selection process.
Of the 700 jury summons that went out, around 150 potential jurors responded on Monday.
“We are pleased with the turnout we did receive because when we checked the online qualification system, the numbers were a bit low,” she explained. “So we did have a little bit more of a turnout than expected, but we were also expecting to have people to show up who didn’t have access to the internet or couldn’t go online to fill out the questionnaire.”
The jurors were staggered in three groups throughout the day to allow for greater social distancing.
“We wanted to make sure that everyone wouldn’t show up at the same time and wanted to make sure that people felt safe coming down here,” stated Barnes.
Experts suggest a third of those who have the virus are not aware.
Planning to address asymptomatic or presymptomatic jurors remains top of mind. This week, juries are sitting in the gallery rather than the jury box to allow for greater social distancing. Some courtrooms have plexiglass dividers installed.
“I commend my staff because they were on the front line,” she stated. “We sat down and brainstormed to try to figure out some logistics as far as getting jurors in the courthouse. Upon arrival, anyone who was here for jury duty received an envelope that had a mask, a pair of gloves, a small bottle sanitizer, a pen and a COVID form. Their temperatures were taken before they entered the building.”
Currently judges are prioritizing which criminal cases make it to trial.
“A couple of them want to try murder cases right off the bat, some of the other ones are mainly looking at the oldest case numbers and working from there,” Barnes said.
To further complicate the already challenging jury trial schedule, the courthouse is undergoing major renovations which limits the number of available courtrooms.
After this week, one other jury trial week is scheduled before the end of the year.
“I think that it will be sustainable, like I explained to the judges and staff, this first trial week would be trial and error. We wanted to get an idea of what would work and what would not.”
The current focus is criminal trials. Civil trials could resume in 2021.