Jury trials in Maryland will not resume until July 20 at the earliest, the Maryland Judiciary on Thursday told a Senate panel examining the court system’s plans for eventual resumption to full service amid efforts to prevent the viral spread of COVID-19.
Under existing emergency orders from the state’s top judge, Maryland courts will remain closed except for emergency matters through Friday, June 5. But Monday, June 8, “will not be business as usual” in Maryland courthouses as concern for public health and social distancing will remain paramount, delaying the usual daily summoning of Marylanders for jury duty in circuit court, Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Barbera addressed the panel via video conference with Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Laura Ripken and Chief District Court Judge John P. Morrissey.
“Jury trials will not begin for at least six weeks after reopening at this point and maybe longer depending on the recommendations that come from the (Judiciary’s pandemic) work groups and the assurances that we can keep everybody safe,” said Ripken, who chairs the Conference of Circuit Judges.
Maryland Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe voiced understanding but also deep concern regarding the postponement of jury trials.
Criminal defendants have a constitutional right to a speedy trial before a jury but due to the pandemic-compelled emergency measure must “languish in jail and wait for an uncertain trial date,” DeWolfe told the Senate panel.
He added that his attorney staff has transferred its focus from trial preparation to pressing judges to order the pretrial release of defendants and the early release of state prisoners who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 due to age or autoimmune deficiency.
Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy told the senators that he and his fellow prosecutors have been amenable to – and in many cases helped initiate — requests for the pretrial release of defendants not accused of violent crimes and of nonviolent prisoners with fewer than four months left to serve in prison to protect these individuals, and those who guard them, from the virus.
McCarthy said prosecutorial discretion is also important in limiting pretrial detention, noting his reticence in prosecuting people for driving on a suspended license if they are working toward having the suspension lifted. In this way, prosecutors can “take those cases out of the system that can be taken out of the system,” McCarthy said on behalf of the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association.
Noting the testimony of the prosecution and defense, Sen. William C. “Will” Smith Jr. said the COVID-19- inspired release of nonviolent convicts and pretrial detainees might lead to a new round of criminal justice reform.
“Maybe the pandemic has provided us an opportunity to do some outside-of-the-box thinking,” said Smith, D-Montgomery and the Senate panel’s chair. “Maybe it’s time for us to start reimagining how we do business.”
Under Barbera’s orders, circuit and district courts remain staffed for such emergency matters as domestic violence petitions, detention hearings, bail reviews, arraignments, juvenile hears and protective orders. Uncontested divorces, drug court hearings and guilty pleas have been handled remotely, the Judiciary stated.
“We have been open and working,” Ripken told the committee.
But defense attorney Mimi Teahan voiced concern about how well attorney-client privilege can be preserved if criminal trials resume amid social distancing.
Many of these private discussions occur during trial, with the lawyer and defendant having a “hushed conversation” while sitting next to each other — communication that cannot occur when standing six feet apart, Teahan told the Senate panel on behalf of the Maryland State Bar Association’s Criminal Law & Practice Section Council.
“That will definitely be a challenge,” said Teahan, of Ethridge, Quinn, Kemp, Rowan & Hartinger in Frederick.
Teahan added that pretrial questioning of prospective jurors would also be complicated by social distancing.
For example, the prosecution or defense might want to ask follow-up questions to would-be jurors who said they were victims of violence in order to determine if they could still be impartial. Such supplementary inquiries occur in muted conversations near the judge’s bench among the judge, defense, and prospective jurors to protect their privacy.
“We kind of huddle at the bench,” Teahan told the Senate panel.