It’s been months since any jury trials have been held in Burke County, but Monday they will begin again with special precautions taken for COVID-19.
An administrative order from Senior Superior Court Judge Robert C. Ervin set out a specific set of guidelines for selecting juries in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and carrying out the trials.
Ervin said he worked on the plan for months, starting sometime in late May or early June, to tackle an issue unlike anything he’s seen before.
“For the courts, as well as I’m sure businesses and churches, we’re all trained and have experience in doing things within our field, but none of us thought we were going to be operating the public health system, too,” Ervin said.
He went over the plan to resume jury trials, which went through multiple drafts, with court personnel and attorneys.
Initially, the court will start with simpler trials to work out any kinks in the plan before moving on to more complicated trials.
Jury summonses will be sent out as normal, but now will include a letter from Ervin and the resident superior court judge outlining the precautions made to protect members of the jury.
The clerk of court’s office is instructed in the order to tell prospective jurors that their requests to be excused or deferred can be mailed, faxed or emailed to the clerk’s office.
Any prospective jurors who have COVID-19, are subject to quarantine or who are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 will be instructed to call the clerk’s office or trial court coordinator for additional instructions. They will be instructed not to report for jury duty, the order said.
Orientation and selection of the jury will take place at CoMMA in Morganton, where prospective jurors will be seated in the lobby of the venue with social distancing and masks. The clerk of superior court, or her designee, will then call the first 12 jurors to come to seats at the front of the room for questioning.
While being questioned during the selection process, jurors will be asked not to wear masks to ensure that all of the parties involved, including the court reporter, can hear their responses. Social distancing will remain in place.
Trials will take place in Courtroom 1 at the Burke County Courthouse, where plexiglass shields have been installed in the front row of the jury box to divide jurors from each other and the court reporter.
Shields also have been put up to divide the judge and the clerk, counsel tables and the witness and the clerk.
Seating also will be limited to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
Only four seats in the second row of the jury box will be used, while the other jurors will be seated in the portion of the audience benches of the courtroom immediately behind the jury box, according to the administrative order.
During trials, everyone present will be expected to wear masks with a few exceptions.
Those exceptions include when prospective jury members are being questioned by attorneys, or when attorneys are addressing the court or could end up having to object during the trial.
The court is asking that requests to approach the bench or be heard outside the presence of the jury be limited. If a request to be heard outside the presence of the jury is made, the necessary parties will move to the jury room where social distancing may be maintained, the order says.
Attorneys will be asked to remain seated at their table while questioning people. They can stand in the middle of the courtroom in front of the jury while making opening or closing statements.
Exhibits will be compiled in notebooks for jury members ahead of the trial. Should an exhibit need to be added during the trial, parties can do so during court breaks. The court has made arrangements to get a device to help display exhibits to the jury, and a television screen will be available for video.
The jury will deliberate in the courtroom while other parties exit the courtroom
Witnesses will be affirmed instead of taking an oath on the Bible to prevent people from touching the same surface.
Each day, all court participants and jurors will be asked to complete a daily checklist to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at court.
Any jurors who answer affirmatively to any of the questions on the checklist will be asked to wait outside the courtroom until the issue can be addressed, and they likely will be excused from jury service. Checklists will be kept in sealed envelopes by the courtroom clerk, and will not be released to anyone without a court order.
If any court participant begins experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, they must report those immediately to courtroom officers. Anyone who reports symptoms or is observed with symptoms will be moved to a protected area and the presiding judge will address the issue immediately, which may require consulting with the health department for additional guidance, the order says.
Any trial participant or juror who is excused from participating in the remainder in the trail will be told to leave the courthouse immediately and seek medical attention. No one will be allowed to sit where that person sat until the area has been cleaned.
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