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Maryland will begin jury trials on Oct. 5, ending a long wait for defendants who have been in jail or on home detention since March, when courts closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
All courts across Maryland will resume full operations on that Monday for both civil and criminal cases.
“Full functioning means we will hear all case types,” Anne Arundel County Administrative Judge Laura Ripken said during a virtual House Judiciary Committee meeting on Tuesday. “But it does not mean back to business as usual.”
But, the process will be slow in all Maryland courts. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 15-20 jury trials were held in Baltimore Circuit Court per day. Now, the court’s goal is seven to eight per month.
And the days of packing the jury shoulder-to-shoulder are over — at least for now. Courthouses across the state are fitted with plexiglass, hand sanitizer and social distancing requirements.
A Conference Workgroup on the Resumption of Circuit Courts set to work in May to create guidelines for Maryland courts to resume all functions while prioritizing safety. Members of that workgroup were judges, clerks, jury commissioners and court administrators.
“Recognizing that every circuit court in this state is different, the workgroup attempted to address every conceivable aspect of a jury trial in order to provide jurisdictions with tools and ideas that they could use to effectively resume jury trials in their jurisdiction,” Administrative Judge Sheila Tillerson Adams, chair of the workgroup, told the House committee Tuesday.
The group researched states that had already started some trials, including Texas, Ohio and California.
The plan they made for Maryland includes masks, temperature checks, reduced touchpoints and social distancing. Jury assembly, deliberation rooms and courtrooms across the state were modified to ensure that jurors are at least six feet apart.
But each jurisdiction’s implementation of the guidelines will be different. Some courts will stagger jury trials, while others use technology. Others will partner with venues in the community to allow greater social distancing, by using libraries or school assembly halls.
In Prince George’s County, jurors for criminal cases will be socially distanced across three large courtrooms connected by technology for questioning and selecting jurors. After the jury is selected, they will be seated in the jury box in one half of the gallery. A connecting courtroom will be used for deliberation and another connecting courtroom for the public and press to watch electronically.
For civil cases, jurors will be questioned and selected online from their homes. And two courtrooms will be provided — one for the trial and one for the deliberation room.
Remote communication devices will allow lawyers to communicate with the court without approaching the bench.
“I’m confident that we can resume jury trials in a safe, secure and efficient manner,” said Worcester County Administrative Judge Brian Shockley. Courts in Worcester County will use a volunteer fire department building in Snow Hill for their voir dire process, then selected jurors will go to the courthouse for the trial.
Jury trials mark Phase 5 in the state judiciary’s reopening plan.
On June 5, the Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera issued a five phase plan to slowly reopen, after most court activity stopped March 16. Some daily operations have continued, following that plan, in the 24 circuit courts across the state. Resuming jury trials is the final phase.
Court employees and litigants entering any courthouse or court office must answer screening questions, have their temperature checked, wear a face mask and maintain social distancing.
If a juror has symptoms, that juror will be sent home. Courts will evaluate requests for postponements or excuses on a case-by-case basis.
“Health protocols will remain in place, as they should, until CDC and MDH say it is safe to resume otherwise,” Barbera said, referring to national and Maryland health agencies.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore City) said that his constituents are concerned that the courts are resuming full functionality too soon.
But the workgroup claims that the courthouses are as safe as possible.
“Please, as the leaders of the community, help us communicate that it is as safe as it can be in the circuit courts of the state of Maryland,” Ripken said. “We are prepared. We are ready to resume jury trials.”