More residents will likely be called for jury duty once when jury trials resume in Maryland next month, Harford’s top judge said on a recent tour of the county’s courthouse, showing off precautions being taken keep jurors and others protected from the coronavirus.
Angela Eaves, administrative judge for the Harford County Circuit Court, said the pandemic will almost certainly impact the number of people who are called in for jury duty. Because of safety concerns, Eaves said courts across the state will have to draw from a larger pool of prospective jurors as some defer their civic obligation.
Judges will be understanding, she said.
“We are going to liberally excuse people and reschedule them for jury service,” Eaves said. “We are going to be summonsing a larger number of folks to be able to select a jury, so we are butting up against someone’s constitutional right to have a jury versus any individual citizen’s right to feel they need to be safe from COVID."
Courthouses statewide are preparing to resume full operations, including jury trials, on Oct. 5, according to the Maryland Judiciary. Courts have been gradually reopening for legal proceedings since early June, after temporarily closing when the coronavirus hit the state in March.
Changes to Harford’s circuit courthouse public areas have been obvious as courts have reopened. Masks are now mandatory, as are temperature checks upon entry. Plastic barriers now separate the clerk’s vestibule from visitors. Courtroom gallery capacities have shrunk to comply with distancing requirements.
But beyond those public changes, the courthouse is endeavoring to make things safer for prospective jurors in its waiting room and in courtrooms as the judiciary moves toward resuming all its normal operations. It will be a learning process, but it will be safe for visitors, Eaves said.
“A lot of this is really going to just start with trial and error, not to use the cliche," Eaves said. “It’s safe; no one should have to worry about whether they are going to pick up COVID here.”
In several Harford County courtrooms, sheets of plastic glass have been put in front of the judge’s bench. One table for lawyers was also affixed with a plastic barrier. Many chairs in the public galleries were marked with tape, indicating they cannot be used.
Eaves explained that the modifications to the courtrooms to be in compliance with distancing guidelines mean that the jury box may not accommodate all 12 jurors in a criminal trial. Civil trials, which only require six jurors, will not pose as much of an issue.
Down in the basement of the building is the jury assembly room. In normal times, the room accommodates 150 people in its close-set chairs, but after the coronavirus, only about 25 can find seats. Plastic glass also separates the court workers' desk from the jurors, and social-distancing spots mark the ground every six or so feet along commonly traveled pathways.
Generally, about 55 to 60 people are called for jury selection in routine cases, Eaves said, as attorneys strike jurors before the proceedings begin.
That number increases proportional to the public interest in a case. The jury pool widens and alternate jurors may need to be selected for cases that make a splash in the community. In high-interest cases, up to 240 people may be needed to extract a jury.
Because the assembly room’s capacity is so greatly reduced, the court is exploring other venues for jury selection like the chambers of the Harford County Council and the board of education, along with others.
Though jury trials will be held in person, interested members of the public may be restricted from the courtroom.
“We are going to have to provide a mechanism for the public to listen in on the proceedings because we will not always have the ability to allow them to come in,” Eaves said.
Jury trials need to be conducted in-person for a variety of legal and logistical reasons, Eaves said. Though some jurisdictions across the country have experimented with remote jury trials, weighing the credibility of witnesses in a case is more difficult through a screen, she said. They could appear composed on camera, but show signs of nervousness like fidgeting, leg shaking and other gestures out of frame.
Additionally, remotely hearing what is said in court depends on the placement of microphones; during past phases of reopening where the court was conducting virtual hearings, some said they were hard to hear.
“For a whole host of reasons, we are probably not going to be doing remote jury trials,” Eaves said. “There may be an opportunity for witnesses to appear remotely, but we have done that to some extent before the pandemic.”
In-person jurors can also be sequestered more easily than those appearing remotely. Jury deliberations need to be made independently and free from outside information. There is no guarantee that a juror is watching the proceedings alone, or not seeking out other information about a case when they beam into the courtroom from home, making it a constitutional issue.
Additionally, some who appear remotely are under-dressed for the occasion of court proceedings, or accompanied by others, Eaves said.
“That is one of the problems with remote proceedings now; people do not necessarily perceive it as being in court, even though it is a court proceeding," Eaves said. “We have had some of our judicial officers having to remind people to dress appropriately, not have children or dogs or other distractions with them."