With 18,000-plus case backlog, jury trials to resume next week

Betsy Price Government, Headlines

 

 

 

 

Jury chairs spaced out 3 feet apart await those called for duty in New Castle County.

 

With thousands of criminal cases backlogged in Delaware courts because of the COVID-19 pandemic, jury trials are set to start June 1 with new safety-minded procedures and furnishings. 

A tour Wednesday of the Leonard Williams Justice Center, which is New Castle County’s courthouse, highlighted a lot of the changes made to protect jurors, courthouse staff and case participants. The changes there also are being instituted in the Kent and Sussex county courthouses.

The first trial of summer is set for June 1 in Kent County. Jury trials are expected to start in mid-June at New Castle County.

While 90% of cases will settle before going to trial, the state now has 1,562 criminal cases waiting their turn in Superior Court. Those are serious felony charges. There’s 927 in New Castle County, 319 in Kent and 360 in Sussex. There’s also 157 backlog civil cases, but the state plans to focus first on criminal ones. To do that, it’s bringing back a judge in Kent and a judge in Sussex to come out of retirement and help with the case loads there.

The bulk of the cases, about 15,000, are in the Court of Common Pleas, which hears misdemeanors and cases that have a maximum penalty of up to one year in prison.

More will be added when the Justice of the Peace courts re-open. It deals with violations such minor traffic infractions and issues such as failing to mow your lawn.

The courts didn’t just stop during the pandemic. O’Sullivan said that they handled more than 30,000 proceedings via video conferences. 

And the Chancery Court, Delaware’s business court, has been able to maintain its docket without significant backlog, O’Sullivan said.

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One big change for many people will be that the courthouses still require masks on site. When Gov. John Carney changed the mask rule on May 21, he specified that state buildings would continue to require masks inside. 

O’Sullivan said that’s partly because that people often don’t have a choice about when they go to court, and the courts have no way of knowing who is vaccinated, who is not and who may have been exposed and not realized it.

Participants in a proceeding will be allowed to take their masks off then they are speaking, O’Sullivan said.

“So when the prosecutor is making his address, when the witness is in the box, when the judge is on the bench, they’ll be able to remove their masks at the point and speak as normal,” O’Sullivan said. 

Everyone else — jurors, staff, audience members and those at the defense and plaintiff tables — will be required until Chief Justice Collins Seitz Jr. orders a change.

 

Court spokesman Sean O’Sullivan demonstrates how the new thermal imaging will help check courthouse visitors temperature.

 

Those entering courthouses will be asked to read a sign that lists  virus symptoms and confirm they have not had any. While they are doing that, an officer will be looking at their thermal image to check their temperature. 

When members of the jury pool arrive in Suite 1800, they’ll find its 130 orange chairs spaced out three feet apart, to follow Carney’s most recent guidelines. They removed the six-foot spacing requirement and changed it to three feet.

Before that changed, there were only 60 chairs, all spaced 6 feet apart. 

Prior to the pandemic, the room held around 200 chairs with almost no space between them, said Ken Creedon, assistant jury services manager.

He said that the courts normally would call 200 jurors per term, but will be calling only 140 as long as the pandemic restrictions are in place. 

Before COVID-19, jurors would queue at a counter to check in and have their parking tickets validated. Now Creedon and staff have a desk on wheels that allows them to come to each juror to prevent crowds and spread of infection. 

For the time being, instead of moving large numbers of jurors through the courthouse halls and elevators to a courtroom, a judge comes onto a screen to describe the case at hand and then asks questions such as whether anyone knew the plaintiff or had ever been in a similar situation. That often meant the person would be struck from the jury. 

In a normal year, if a potential juror had a private concern, he or she likely would go to the judge’s bench to discuss it. Now, jurors go to a small room, where they can talk to the judge privately over a video link. 

The changes extend into the courtrooms, which make grand use of plexiglass. Jurors will be surrounded on three sides by plexiglass to prevent the spread of the virus, and the bench and lawyer’s tables also have plexiglass shields which separate people sitting at a table, even a  lawyer and client.

The changes also affect a new floor opening in the New Castle County Courthouse. It will hold the building’s largest courtroom, 7E. It features the same plexiglass-enclosed jury pods as well as six COVID-safe desks for lawyers. 

That might look like a lot, O’Sullivan said, but Court of Chancery proceedings often have teams of lawyers who need space and some cases with multiple defendants do, too.

The courtroom will have the Great Seal of Delaware hanging on the marble wall behind the judge’s bench rather than a Superior Court seal because it will not be used for a single type of court, as others are.

O’Sullivan said that 100% of court staff is expected to be back in the building by July 6.

This is the second time that the courts have tried to reopen jury trials. It had planned to in October, but as COVID-19 cases started to rise for the holiday and winter surge, the courts decided to back off. Kent County did manage to have one jury trial during that time.

 

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