Baltimore courts held the first jury trial Monday during the coronavirus pandemic, even as one city judge was in quarantine after testing positive for the virus.
A judge of the Baltimore Circuit Court received positive tests results Monday morning, according to an email sent to courthouse staff from the chambers of Judge Audrey Carrion, chief of the Baltimore Circuit Court.
Carrion notified staff that the sick judge has been in quarantine since last Tuesday, and cleaning crews were sanitizing the judge’s courtroom, chambers and elevator in the Elijah E. Cummings Courthouse.
It’s just the latest coronavirus case to surface in Baltimore Circuit Court. Late last month, a clerk and attorney who attended a pretrial conference came down with the virus. In early September, an employee of the sheriff’s office who works at the courthouse contracted the virus.
Maryland judges have been working for months to develop protocols to resume jury trials during the pandemic. Monday brought the first jury trial in six months: a 37-year-old Baltimore man charged with drugs and illegal guns.
The big, ceremonial courtroom on the 4th floor of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse had been outfitted with clear, plastic dividers to separate each seat of the jury box. Also, the judge, clerks and attorneys sat surrounded by the dividers. When entering, jurors were screened with questions and a device that scanned for body temperate.
“We’re going to see how this all works,” Circuit Judge Philip Jackson told the attorneys. “We’re trying to protect everybody’s health as best we can.”
Jackson acknowledged that it might be difficult to hear him through his mask and the dividers. He urged the attorneys to speak up if they had any trouble.
The case began with a different process to select the jury. Usually, a jury pool with 50 or more people fills the courtroom. Each man or woman steps up to answer questions while huddled at the bench with the judge and attorneys.
On Monday, Jackson called prospective jurors into the courtroom one by one. Each man or woman spoke at a podium stationed in the middle of the room. Cleaning crews waited in the hallway. Between each juror, they ducked in and sanitized the podium. The process moved much more slowly.
Further, these jurors faced new questions. Each was asked if he or she had any underlying medical condition, or if they had “strong feelings” about serving on a jury during a pandemic. Judges have said this questioning process, known as “voir dire,” might now consume many days.
Baltimore Circuit Court scheduled three civil jury trials to begin Tuesday. The next two criminal trial are scheduled for October 13 and 26.
Judges also plan to seat jurors at the War Memorial downtown as they ramp up trials. They want to try three to four criminal cases a month, far less than the average of 39 a month last year.