Colorado Court Grapples with Holding a Homicide Jury Trial During the Pandemic

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Colorado Court Grapples with Holding a Homicide Jury Trial During the Pandemic – First It’s “Yes” Now It’s “No”

Last week, public defenders in a capital murder case criticized an  Adams County trial judge for going forward with jury selection without virus screening hundreds of prospective jurors, who had been summoned to the courthouse to fill out case-specific questionnaires.  Maureen Cain, director of legislative policy and external communications for the Colorado State Public Defender’s office, said “We remain seriously concerned that the court has exposed, at this point, 1,700 people to a virus and we believe a doctor or medical professional needs to tell us how we can safely proceed.”  On March 20, the Denver Post reported that Adams County District Court Judge Mark Warner denied the defense’s request for testing “in part because the 17th Judicial District Court has already taken a variety of precautions, including cancelling most proceedings and ordering those who show symptoms or think they may have been exposed to COVID-19 not to come to the courthouse. Chief Judge Emily Anderson also ordered that people in the courthouse be allowed to wear masks and gloves and carry hand sanitizer.”   However, this week, Judge Warner reversed himself.  Post journalist Shelly Bradbury now reports the court decided to delay the trial for two weeks out of concern whether the court could select a jury that represents a fair cross-section of society given the current restrictions on daily life. He said older people may not be able to serve on a jury now because of the higher risk posed to them by the virus, while parents of young children might not be able to serve because they need to watch their children while schools are out.  Warner was also concerned about whether the defendant’s public trial rights would be honored while the courthouse was closed to the general public.  More generally, he worried about the health of court staff and those involved with the case, saying that some prospective jurors had objected to reporting to the courthouse during the pandemic.  Will two weeks make a difference?  Stay tuned.

However, in Maryland, a Jury Trial Must Go On

In the middle of a murder trial, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan declared a public health emergency, ordered the shutdown of schools, and banned gatherings of more than 250 persons.  Thereafter, the courthouses closed for new cases.  The ongoing murder trial was excepted from the closure.  On the day of closing arguments, defense lawyer Mike Lawlor asked the trial judge to declare a mistrial—pointing out that a jury of twelve would exceed a federal guideline urging that groups not exceed ten persons.   Circuit Court Judge Harry Storm denied the defense motion by citing the days of testimony, the hours of closing argument, and the precaution he already took to have the final deliberations take place in a conference room twice the size of the regular deliberation room.  The jury did not seem to mind.  They deliberated for three days without expressing any health concerns.  Although the jury ultimately deadlocked, two jurors afterward spoke about how the serious nature of the case made them want “to keep trying” to reach a verdict.

Canadian Legislators Recommend Large Appropriation to Support Mental Health Care for Stressed Former Jurors

A committee of the House of Commons has recommended $20 million over the next 10 years to support mental health services for traumatized jurors.  Mark Farrant, a member of the Canadian Juries Commission and former juror who suffered PTSD from his prior service, stated, “We want Canadiens to be able to participate in jury duty – not seek ways to avoid it.”

Also, in Canada, High Court Upholds Constitutionality of Abolition of Peremptory Jury Strikes

The Ontario Court of Appeal this month upheld the Parliament’s abolition of both peremptory strikes (prospectively only) and the long-established practice in Canada of having lay persons, not a judge, rule on party motions to strike a juror for cause.  Court watchers believe the ruling is likely to be appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Kansas Chief Justice Given Power to Suspend Speedy Trial Rights

At this pandemic moment, a new law in Kansas gives the chief justice the power to suspend application of the speedy trial right law for up to 150 days after a state of emergency has been declared.

Miss Yesterday's Webinar on Managing Juries during the COVID-19 Pandemic? Join Us Again at 2:30 on Tuesday, March 31

The NCSC Center for Jury Studies will repeat its webinar on managing juries and jury trials during the COVID-19 pandemic on Tuesday, March 31 from 2:30 to 3:30 pm EDT.  The platform will be able accommodate all of the people who were unable to participate in the previous webinar on March 26.  Register here. Topics addressed will include ramping jury operations back up after trial suspensions; compensating for reduced jury yields; recommended deferral and excusal policies; implications of the pandemic for fair cross section; social distancing in the jury assembly room and courtrooms; public outreach to calm fears and encourage jury service; aspects of jury service that might be done online.