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Federal court resumes in Baltimore with a post-COVID-19 look that includes masks, shields, dividers and multiple rooms

Inside the U.S. District Court in Baltimore, Chief Judge James K. Bredar reads a series of questions broadcast simultaneously to jurors, lawyers and others in two separate rooms, his voice emerging from behind his own face shield as he sits on the bench.

Monday was anything but a normal day in federal court. The first criminal trial in five months began with Charvez Brooks, 31, charged with robbing an Exxon gas station in Owings Mills in January 2018. A co-defendant, Levon Butts, pleaded guilty in January and is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 2.

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The case against Brooks, who pleaded not guilty and said during the proceedings that he’d turned down a plea agreement, is routine, the type that plays out in state and federal courts on a daily basis in normal times. But Monday, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, staff, attorneys, potential jurors and the viewing public were spread across multiple rooms in an effort to maintain social distancing.

People entering the courthouse were stopped and asked whether they’d left the country or are experiencing a fever, a measure meant to screen for people who might’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or are experiencing potential symptoms.

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Signs told visitors that face masks are required at all times, and lines on the courthouse floors demonstrate what a 6-foot distance looks like.

The public is no longer allowed in the courtrooms, and the proceedings were beamed live on a television set up in a courtroom four floors above where Brooks’ case was taking place.

Only four people at a time were ever watching the screen and everyone wore face masks while huddling around a Panasonic HDTV positioned to the side of a courtroom. Those in attendance saw three camera views of three different rooms all handling the same case.

Inside Bredar’s courtroom, the judge sat behind a protective transparent barrier. He’d later put a face mask on under the face shield as he prepared to question potential jurors in-person.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys also were separated by transparent dividers and their tables appeared to have been arranged in front of one another, instead of the customary side-by-side setup.

Monday began with jury selection. Typically that means dozens of potential jurors crowding into a courtroom to be questioned about any relationships they may have with the defendants, prosecutors, police officers or lawyers involved in the case. Instead, Bredar read aloud a series of questions that were broadcast to jurors in the other rooms, and they answered in writing on a questionnaire. Court personnel gathered their answers while wearing gloves.

According to David Ciambruschini, spokesman for the court’s Clerk’s Office, the court summoned about 350 people for jury duty, about 50% more than before the pandemic.

That number was narrowed to 141 deemed eligible to serve on the jury, and a final pool of 65 for Brooks’ trial. Ciambruschini said three people called in sick and one person did not show up without notifying the court beforehand. He said he could not say how that compared with before the courts closed in March due to the pandemic.

As Bredar asked potential jurors whether they had any relationship to Brooks or any of the attorneys, each person had to walk up to a specific spot in the courtroom and take off their face mask while a camera in the room focused on their face.

The public’s view of the jurors was limited to two cameras, positioned in ways so people’s features were hard to discern or their backs were largely to the camera when seated.

Concerns about the pandemic are now part of the selection process, with Bredar asking those deemed eligible whether they or their loved ones have any underlying medical conditions that could be exacerbated by COVID-19. He also asked, “Do you have concerns about COVID-19 that are so significant” that it could impede someone’s ability to serve.

After the judge read the series of 40 questions — including a part where he said, “If you can’t speak English, choose yes” in English and no other language — and the questionnaires were collected, the jurors were called into Bredar’s courtroom one by one.

Typically, a judge interviewing potential jurors for a criminal case does that in open court, even if in some cases the questions are asked outside earshot of other jurors. Instead, on Monday, the video was cut off before the individual interviews to maintain their private nature.

Brooks’ case is scheduled to take place all week.

Maryland’s state courts also are inching back toward normalcy, although jury trials remain more than a month away.

Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera of the Court of Appeals has ordered all state courts to enter phase 4 of a five-stage reopening plan Aug. 31. Her plan calls for courts to “resume non-jury trials and contested hearings in criminal, civil, family, and juvenile matters.”

The final step is scheduled to begin Oct. 5, when her order says courts “will resume full operations, including jury trials.”

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