Maryland judges spent months preparing to resume jury trials amid the coronavirus pandemic. They rebuilt courtrooms with Plexiglas shields, stocked masks and thermometers, even found space off-site to assemble jurors in fire halls and fairgrounds.
Two weeks ago, a Baltimore judge’s planning conference underscored the need for all the preparation — and brought a reminder that COVID-19 is waiting in the wings. A clerk and attorney attending the meeting came down with the virus. Suddenly, one of the city’s first trials in nearly seven months was in jeopardy, likely to be postponed — an ominous sign for the return of jurors to the courts.
While judges have presided over some bench trials during the pandemic, Monday brings the first jury trials since March to the 24 circuit courts of Maryland.
As backlogs of cases have grown and people accused of crimes wait months in jail, prosecutors and defense attorneys agree jury trials must resume, however tentatively. But in a justice system that depends on stability, where the smallest miscues by jurors and lawyers can cause a mistrial, the uncertainty of what lies ahead has many people feeling anxious.
“Think about being in a trial and one of the jurors went to visit their aunt or cousin and now their aunt or cousin tests positive. Next thing you know, they’ve been in that jury room … It’s like playing Russian roulette,” said Ivan Bates, a Baltimore defense attorney.
In early September, an employee of the Baltimore sheriff’s office tested positive for the virus. Judge Audrey Carrion, chief of the Baltimore Circuit Court, sent an email to alert courthouse staff. Some 270 people have tested positive at the Central Booking and Intake Center, many of them criminal defendants awaiting trial.
When the clerk and attorney recently contracted the virus, cleaning crews set to work sanitizing two courtrooms and the chambers of one judge in the Elijah E. Cummings Courthouse, Carrion wrote in an email obtained by The Baltimore Sun.
“The public restroom on the 5th floor of the Cummings Courthouse is sealed and will also be decontaminated. All elevators in Cummings Courthouse will be sanitized,” she wrote.
Maryland Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera suspended all jury trials six months ago and other states followed suit. In Virginia, various counties resumed jury trials last month. There have been lessons learned. Philadelphia courts streamed criminal trials on YouTube before prosecutors expressed concern about witness intimidation.
“We have to start at some point. I’m just hopeful that we can do this in a safe way,” said Michael Schatzow, chief deputy for the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office. “There’s a sense in which we’re seeking out answers, to see how the practices that we’ve come up with will work.”
Last month, the union of public defenders in Maryland sent a letter to the state’s chief judge urging her to assess all the courthouses. Many cramped, old courthouse buildings lack adequate ventilation or space for social distancing. Baltimore’s Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse opened 120 years ago.
The public defenders want the courts to suspend trials if the rate of coronavirus cases increases. They want the courts to consider other ways to relieve the backlog of cases, such as amnesty for nonviolent crimes. Mostly, they have felt shut out of the reopening plan, said Cynthia Frezzo, a union member and public defender in Charles County.
“We’re very anxious for our clients, especially our clients who have been held in custody throughout the pandemic. We’re also really anxious because we were not really included,” she said.
The thought of entering a courtroom in Baltimore is also unsettling to prospective jurors. Last March, Tracy Gold was summoned to jury duty in Baltimore Circuit Court. She worried about bringing the virus home to her husband, who suffers an autoimmune disorder, or their toddler.
“Normally, there is not an empty chair. If you go to the bathroom, you are brushing against people. People are there coughing. It’s a germy situation under the best conditions. So yeah, I was freaking out,” she said.
The virus has infected more than 125,000 people across Maryland and killed 3,800, according to the state health department.
Before the outbreak, several high-profile criminal trials had been scheduled for 2020. Among them, the murder trial of Keith Smith, the Aberdeen man who allegedly stabbed his wife to death, blamed her killing on a panhandler and made a run for the Mexican border. Anne Arundel County Circuit Court was to hold a jury trial to determine whether Jarrod Ramos was insane when he blasted his way into the Capital-Gazette newsroom two years ago and murdered five staffers. Big cases require more prospective jurors.
In Baltimore, these cases will fall to next year. Carrion, the administrative judge, has instead chosen to start with lesser offenses such as gun cases. In civil trials, city jurors will have the option of participating in jury selection by Zoom (that option won’t be available for criminal cases). In weeks to come, criminal juries will be picked downtown at the War Memorial.
Everyone entering the courthouse will be screened. Sheriff’s deputies will take temperatures at the door. Elevators will be restricted to two people at a time. Everyone must wear a mask.
They have equipped courtrooms with headsets for attorneys and defendants so they don’t have to approach the judge’s bench. Plexiglas shields will separate jurors. Witnesses will testify wearing clear face masks. Hand sanitizer, soap and wipes will be everywhere.
Officials promise aggressive contact tracing, something defense attorney Tony Garcia experienced already. Last month, he was in court for a violation of probation case. City judges have continued to hold such administrative matters, including hearings for bail reviews and guilty pleas.
A few days after the hearing, Garcia received a call from a clerk: Someone in the courtroom tested positive; Garcia may have been exposed.
Even as he isolated and sought a coronavirus test, Garcia received another phone call from the court. He never came within 10 feet of the infected person and therefore was cleared. Garcia believes the judge checked the courtroom cameras to determine who was at risk.
“All it takes is one positive test or somebody to say they got COVID," he said. "You’re going to have a total disruption of the court system.”
In addition, many attorneys wonder what will become of a case if a juror falls sick during trial.
“Health and safety have got to be my biggest priority,” said Baltimore County Administrative Judge Kathleen Gallogly Cox. “As much as I want trials started and resolved, if there is a health and safety risk, the obligation for the trial judge is to declare a mistrial and start over.”
Baltimore County has developed its own plan to resume jury trials. Starting in November, jurors will be summoned to the Cow Palace at the state fairgrounds. Cox settled on the site after searching for some place to bring in a panel of 150 jurors while adhering to social distancing guidelines. She has prioritized trial for defendants charged with felony crimes who have been held in jail the longest.
Similarly, the Garrett County Circuit Court in Western Maryland plans to pick juries at a high school gym. Worcester County plans to use a fire hall in Snow Hill. Judges have said they will be liberal in excusing from duty any jurors with health risks.
Baltimore resident Connor Stambaugh found himself summoned for jury duty on the very day the Baltimore courts wound up suspending jury trials. The 28-year-old remembers the eerie feeling of returning from lunch to find the jury room empty. Everyone had been sent home.
“Personally, I don’t think I would ever feel comfortable,” he said. “I know what I can control and there’s precautions I take. When you start talking about people all over the city?” he said. “It’s my civic duty, and I’d do it, but I’d be lying if I said I would feel comfortable.”