Courtroom safety a bit tricky

The seats normally occupied by the judge, court reporter, witness and the jury will have to wait for the next trial docket as the one planned for September, along with another back in April, was suspended because more safety measures are needed to deal with the COVID-19 virus threat. (PV Democrat photo)

Keeping people safe and socially distanced in the courtroom is still proving tricky as for the second time in a few months Garvin County’s jury trial docket has been suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although many smaller hearings and suspect arraignments are still happening the bigger jury dockets for both September and this past April were called off because of the virus threat.

It appears the part proving difficult to figure out is how to safely select a jury as large groups of people are typically called into a Garvin County District courtroom for the process.

Then there’s the actual trials as court officials also want to ensure safety for jurors and everyone else involved in the proceedings.

Leah Edwards, district judge for Garvin and McClain counties, says any scheduled trials didn't happen for the second straight docket because more virus related safety measures are needed first.

“A decision was made to delay the trial dockets because the health of jurors and attorneys and court staff is our paramount concern,” Edwards tells the PV Democrat.

When the virus pandemic arrived in March it pretty much shut down all but the essential daily court proceedings at the Garvin County Courthouse – at least for a few weeks.

Since the pandemic began Edwards says there are still court proceedings going on and many cases moving forward.

During that time Edwards was also appointed to a state judicial pandemic task force, which came up with a set of guidelines for courtrooms to function during this virus threat.

One suggestion for trials is to come up with a bigger space where jurors can be safety selected with social distancing.

“We had a tentative arrangement to use an off-site location. We were going to have jury selection at a different location,” the judge said.

“Preliminary discussions were for us to have jurors check in, orient jurors and select jurors from a particular location off-site. We would then move it back to the courtroom to conduct the trial.

“If the COVID virus is still raging at the time of our next docket that's what we will probably do,” she said adding that's now scheduled for January.

Jury selection isn't the only difficulty as the focus is also on keeping everyone safe during the actual trials.

Edwards said the space available in the courtroom “presents challenges” when it comes to spacing everyone out and following the safety guidelines for the virus threat.

That includes jurors, court staff like the reporter, attorneys on both sides, spectators and even defendants and their family members who might want to be there for a trial.

“We have to consider even how close a witness is to the court reporter and the jurors. They're nearly right on top of each other. Everyone has to hear, but we still need to be safe,” Edwards said said.

“We're still looking at ways to keep court staff, the attorneys and jurors safe. These issues are not going away. This gives us a little more time to prepare.”

A plan is now looking at placing a plexiglass barrier between the court reporter and witness testifying from the stand. A barrier could also go between jurors and the witness, while jurors could also be spread out in the area where spectators normally sit.

There might be some exceptions but in Garvin County it hasn't for the most part been a problem delaying the jury trial dockets for the two months this year.

“There was no one with constitutional speedy trial issues that mandated a jury trial in September.”

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