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Md. courts make adjustments to resume jury trials Oct. 5, judges say

“The days of packing jurors in jury rooms across this state and sitting shoulder to shoulder in a jury box are over for now,” said Prince George’s County Circuit Judge Sheila R. Tillerson Adams. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

“The days of packing jurors in jury rooms across this state and sitting shoulder to shoulder in a jury box are over for now,” said Prince George’s County Circuit Judge Sheila R. Tillerson Adams. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

Maryland’s circuit courts will be ready to resume jury trials Oct. 5 in a socially distanced world by taking creative steps, such as converting firehouses to jury rooms, conducting jury selection via Zoom and having jurors sit and deliberate in courtroom spectator galleries, judges said Tuesday.

“The days of packing jurors in jury rooms across this state and sitting shoulder to shoulder in a jury box are over for now,” said Prince George’s County Circuit Judge Sheila R. Tillerson Adams, who led a Maryland Judiciary’s work group on resuming jury trials. “Our recommendations prioritize keeping jurors safe and staff safe during this pandemic.”

The group’s recommendations included staggering the times when prospective jurors report to the courthouse or an alternate, nearby location, to ensure they remain at least six feet apart, Adams said. Circuit courts will also be permitted to use videoconferences to enable would-be jurors to be screened, or “voir dired,” at home and then required to come to court only if chosen to serve on a jury, Adams added.

People reporting for jury duty will also be subjected to the now-common safety precautions of being asked questions about their health, having their temperature taken and being required to wear masks and remain at least six feet away from others, Adams told the House Judiciary Committee.

Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera called for the resumption of jury trials Oct. 5 as part of a series of emergency orders she has issued since March in an effort to stanch the spread of the COVID-19 virus. On Tuesday, she told the House panel that the judiciary is moving forward cautiously.

“Jury trials require the assembly of large groups of citizens in order to allow the selection of an impartial jury,” said Barbera, the state’s top jurist.

“Doing this responsibly while safeguarding due process is a complex challenge as you can imagine” during the pandemic, Barbera added. “The judicial branch of Maryland will continue to move forward unless and until the guidance of health experts cautions otherwise.”

But Del. Luke H. Clippinger, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said many people called for jury duty might well be skeptical about their protection from the virus if required to report to courthouses, many of which are old and might have faulty ventilation systems.

“There is that discomfort out there,” said Clippinger, a Baltimore Democrat.

“There’s sort of a feeling of ‘are they really going to do this, are they really going to open?’” he added. “It goes to a reticence about showing up for jury duty.”

Adams responded that the judiciary’s “priority is keeping people safe” by ensuring that jurors can be socially distanced in from the time they report for service until they are dismissed.

“Jury service is not going to look like it used to,” Adams said. “We’re not going to just open up and pack people in.”

For example, Prince George’s County Circuit Court will have prospective jurors for criminal trials arrive not en masse but in two separate shifts on Monday: one group at 7:30 a.m and another at 11 a.m., Adams said. Voir dire will be conducted by video conference with the prospective jurors divided among three courtrooms, she added.

Selected jurors will be seated in the jury box and spectator gallery to ensure social distancing. The general public and the press will be able to witness the trial from another courtroom via video, said Adams, who serves as Prince George’s County Circuit Court’s administrative judge.

Jury deliberations will be held in a separate courtroom, rather than in the smaller deliberation room, she added.

Juries for civil cases will be selected via “virtual voir dire” on Wednesdays, which will enable prospective jurors to be questioned at home by way of Zoom, Adams said. Selected jurors would report to the courthouse for trial on Thursday, she added.

In Worcester County, prospective jurors will gather at the nearby fire department’s social hall because their usual gathering place — in the circuit court’s basement — is too small to accommodate a sufficient pool of socially distanced would-be jurors, said Brian D. Shockley, administrative judge of the Worcester County Circuit Court.

Jury selection would also be conducted in the social hall, with selected jurors reporting to the Snow Hill courthouse a mile away, he told the committee.

Shockley called the plan “a work in progress subject to tweaking and adjustment.”

“I believe this plan is best suited for our circumstances here in Worcester County,” Shockley said. “I am confident that we can resume jury trials in a safe, secure and efficient manner.”

Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Laura S. Ripken, who chairs the Maryland Conference of Circuit Judges, told the committee that prospective jurors might be reporting to a high school gymnasium in Garrett County and to the Cow Palace building on the Baltimore County fairgrounds to ensure social distancing.

“It is as safe as it can be in the circuit courts,” Ripken said. “We are prepared. We are ready to resume jury trials.”

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