Jurors are returning this week to courtrooms across Maryland for the first time in five months, and judges are beginning to chip away at the backlog of thousands of felony cases that piled up during the coronavirus pandemic.
Maryland Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera’s order allowed jury trials to resume Monday in criminal and civil cases statewide. She suspended them in November when coronavirus infections jumped. Maryland’s courts opened and closed intermittently to jury trials since the virus broke out more than a year ago.
Barbera reassured prospective jurors in a video posted online Friday, noting the state’s courts held 88 jury trials between October and November, a period when the courts were fully operational, without one instance of COVID-19 spread during trial. Further, she said, that period came before the approval and distribution of the vaccines.
“Those called for jury service can be assured that we will continue to safeguard, as much as we reasonably can, the health of the public including jurors,” the chief judge said.
Baltimore Circuit Court officials are easing into operations, with jury trials limited to two civil and two criminal cases a week until June. Officials plan to first try men and women facing charges for guns and nonfatal shootings. Homicide cases are scheduled to begin this summer.
In Baltimore County, judges scheduled criminal and civil jury trials every week through the end of 2021, officials said. The Baltimore County Circuit Court picked its first jury this week at the American Legion in Towson. Baltimore County Circuit Court reconfigured seven courtrooms, four for criminal jury trials, three for civil jury trials, to accommodate social distancing. And county officials said they expect to work through the criminal and civil backlog this year.
City officials scheduled the first homicide case for July 14. Neil Davis, 27, of Better Waverly, is to stand trial for the fatal shooting of Darelle Yancey in November 2018. Three months later, Davis allegedly walked into Frederick Douglass High School in Mondawmin and shot a staffer. He’s facing attempted murder and gun charges in that case.
The virus outbreak caused Barbera to suspend jury trials in March 2020. Some of the biggest murder trials in Maryland were put on hold. Among them, the trial of Keith Smith, the Aberdeen man who allegedly stabbed his wife to death, blamed her killing on a Baltimore panhandler and made a run for the Mexican border. He’s scheduled for trial in December.
Anne Arundel Circuit Court was to hold a jury trial to determine whether the man who blasted his way into the Capital Gazette newsroom and murdered five staffers was insane. Motions hearings in the case happened last week and the trial is scheduled to begin in June, about three years after the attack on the Annapolis news organization, which is part of Baltimore Sun Media.
In Baltimore alone, men and women in nearly 900 cases are being held in jail awaiting trial. State law usually requires a person to be tried in 180 days, a requirement known as the “Hicks Rule.” Barbera’s order to stop jury trials during the worst of the pandemic also suspended this rule.
In the year since then, a backlog of cases past the Hicks date in Baltimore Circuit Court has grown to 1,522 felonies and 162 misdemeanor cases, Administrative Judge Audrey Carrión said.
An additional 1,500 felony cases also are awaiting trial, according to the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office.
Though much work lies ahead, Carrión said she does not believe it will take the Baltimore Circuit Court years to resolve the backlog.
“These cases will come to trial. There will be pleas. We will get the work done,” she said.
But Michael Schatzow, the chief deputy state’s attorney for Baltimore, also said officials don’t expect to work through the backlog quickly.
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“The problem is resources,” he said. “There are only so many courtrooms, only so many judges, only so many potential jurors. You have a number of limiting factors.”
Two courtrooms have been selected for civil trials and two for criminal trials in Baltimore. These courtrooms, chosen because they are the biggest, are outfitted with Plexiglas dividers to separate the judge, attorneys and court staff.
“It’s going to be new and different for everybody,” Schatzow said. “Trying cases is not typically an activity where the main thing on your mind is maintaining social distance.”
Instead of bench conferences — which are private talks by judge and attorneys outside of earshot — attorneys will use headsets to speak privately with the judge and the defendant. Jurors will be split between two jury boxes. Seats are taped off in the gallery to maintain social distancing. In big cases, overflow rooms will be set up so the public can watch the proceedings live. Elevators are limited to two people at a time.
Jurors must wear a face mask, have their temperature checked and fill out a questionnaire. Everything will take more time, Carrión cautioned.
“Maybe we would pick a jury in one day, and now it’s going to take two days,” she said.
To learn more about jury service during the coronavirus, visit: https://mdcourts.gov/coronavirusupdate.