ORLANDO, Fla. – Seven months after the COVID-19 pandemic halted jury trials in Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, which covers Orange and Osceola counties, jury summonses are being issued for trials and are scheduled to resume later this month.
Court administrators have implemented numerous safety protocols intended to protect jurors, judges, attorneys, witnesses, and other courtroom participants from the virus while also taking measures to ensure defendants receive fair trials.
“We know three things about our trials,” said Chief Judge Donald A. Myers, Jr. “They’re going to take longer. They’re going to require more people and resources. And they’re going to take more space than any trial previously has.”
Myers said the decision to resume jury trials was prompted by Central Florida’s relatively low COVID-19 positivity rate and case numbers, as well as modifications to courthouses and trial procedures that promote social distancing.
“When you come here, you’re going to feel safe, and you’re going to be in a safe environment,” Myers said.
Jury summonses issued
Prospective jurors have begun receiving summonses for jury service beginning Oct. 23 in Orange County and Nov. 2 in Osceola County.
In addition, a previously empaneled grand jury will resume its work on Oct. 22 after additional jurors are selected that day to replace members who could no longer serve due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Orange County, 225 summonses have been issued for the first day of jury selection, but only about a quarter of those prospective jurors will actually be required to appear at the courthouse that morning.
Before entering court facilities, all visitors are required to wear masks and must undergo a temperature check while answering questions about their potential exposure to COVID-19.
The jury assembly room inside the Orange County courthouse typically holds about 350 prospective jurors. But when trials resume, only 60 to 100 people will take part in jury selection each day.
“They’ll be provided with their own PPE packet,” Myers said. “We’ll make sure they have an extra mask. We’ll have hand sanitizer for them. We’ll have some safety instructions, so they understand all the things we’re doing to keep them safe.”
To minimize the use of courthouse elevators, groups of 25 to 30 prospective jurors will ride escalators to large courtrooms on the fourth floor, where jury selection will take place.
“Once selected, those folks will be given a report date and report location,” said Myers. “We’re not moving them straight out of jury selection and into a trial.”
New courtroom safety procedures
During jury selection and trial, jurors and witnesses will be required to wear clear plastic masks over their noses and mouths instead of opaque masks so other courtroom participants can better evaluate them.
“We want to see their facial expressions. We want to know how strongly you feel about an issue or how passive you are about that issue,” Myers said.
The courthouses will be “fogged” with a disinfectant each night, Myers told News 6, and courtrooms have been supplied with extra cloth masks, face shields, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies.
No capital cases are scheduled to be tried soon, including first-degree murder trials, because they require 12-person juries plus alternates that cannot be safely accommodated in most courtrooms.
Instead, only trials requiring six jurors will be held.
Should a defendant charged with a capital offense demand a trial before the pandemic subsides, court administrators are prepared to use a large courtroom with jurors sitting in gallery seats normally occupied by spectators.
To adhere to social distancing guidelines, courthouse personnel have removed the 14 juror chairs that were attached to the floor of jury boxes and replaced them with seven chairs spaced at least six feet apart.
“We’ve done this in cooperation with the local department of health representatives to ensure this is a good and safe layout for our jurors to be in,” said Myers. “If you sit in [the jury box], it is incredible how far apart you feel from each other.”
During breaks, the seven jurors hearing a case will be split up between two different jury rooms.
Once deliberations begin and the alternate juror is dismissed, Myers said the six remaining jurors can keep a safe distance from each other in a single jury room.
Judges may also allow jury deliberations to occur in a closed courtroom.
Court administrators have determined that only about eight to ten spectators can safely fit inside a typical courtroom to observe the proceedings.
If additional family or members of the public wish to watch the trial, Myers said live video of the proceedings could be broadcast to an adjoining courtroom or potentially streamed online.
Defendants and their lawyers will sit six feet apart from each other, with separate chairs for cocounsel set up a safe distance behind the attorneys' tables.
“We’re being cautious because we really do believe we owe that to the people of this community that we’re compelled to come here to serve as jurors,” Myers said.
COVID-related hardships likely to be excused
Judges are often reluctant to excuse citizens from jury duty unless they can show compelling evidence that hardship prevents them from serving.
But prospective jurors who have health issues or are otherwise negatively impacted by the pandemic could be excused from jury service or receive a deferment.
“We’re typically pretty firm about the constraints for excusing a juror. But we have a pretty liberal set of standards when it comes to COVID,” said Myers, citing guidance provided by the Florida Supreme Court.
Most prospective jurors with virus-related hardships contact court personnel when they first receive their summons, so Myers believes most who show up for jury duty will be able to serve if selected.
Yet with some community members being excused from juries due to the pandemic, criminal defendants have expressed concern that they may not receive a fair trial by a jury of their peers.
“The data would suggest the virus has impacted some minority populations in higher percentages than it has others. So we’re cautious. We’re sensitive to that idea,” Myers said.
Such due process concerns would likely be addressed by trial judges on a case-by-case basis, said Myers, who indicated there have been few problems in federal court and other Florida circuits where jury trials have already resumed.
“(There has been) a very high response rate to summons. Very diverse juries. No cause for concern,” said Myers.
If a juror contracts COVID-19 during the course of a trial, other jury members will be discreetly notified and an alternate juror could take over if the judge believes the trial can safely proceed.
But Myers is optimistic that courthouse staff has greatly minimized the chance of that occurring.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” said Myers. “We don’t want delays that we can control. So if we can do this and do it safely, then it’s in the best interest of justice.”