Local jury trials to resume in October with new safety protocols

Jury trials are set to resume in Alabama on Sept. 14 with new procedures in place to decrease the chances of courtroom exposure to COVID-19. Ninth Judicial Circuit Presiding Judge Jeremy Taylor said Tuesday that the circuit’s first jury trial is scheduled for October 5.

Anyone needing an update on the status of a legal case should contact their attorneys. If they do not have an attorney, they may contact the circuit clerk’s office or the office of the judge assigned to the case. The Ninth Circuit also includes Circuit Judges Shaunathan Bell and Andrew Hairston. The District Court Judge is the Honorable Steven Whitmire.

Victims of crime may call District Attorney Mike O’Dell’s office for updates on their cases.

On March 13, the Alabama Supreme Court instructed the court system to stop having in-person hearings, except in emergency situations. Throughout much of 2020, the courts continued to hold hearings at the courthouse using technology such as Zoom and Skype. Personnel have monitored Alacourt, which incorporated Zoom remote teleconferencing capability to its website.

“[We were] able to handle a significant amount of cases, including criminal, civil, domestic, juvenile, and probate matters even though [the courtrooms were] closed,” Taylor said.

DeKalb County Commission President Ricky Harcrow ordered the courthouse and Activities Building closed to the general public except by appointment on March 31.

When the courthouse reopened to the public in mid-May, visitors found strict precautions had been added to inhibit the spread of the coronavirus. Security kept a tight watch on how many people entered at any given time and used a color-coded card system to make sure that no one office had more than 10 people congregating at once. Only the person with a court case or business within the courthouse was allowed to enter. No children could enter unless they were directly involved in a court case.

The Circuit, District, Juvenile and Probate courts were authorized to resume non-jury hearings on May 18, but Taylor postponed that until June 2, when in-person hearings resumed. Taylor cited an increase in coronavirus cases in the district and cautioned that if anyone received a juror summons or received a call about jury duty between then and August, it was more likely than not a scam because the court wouldn’t be sending out any jury summonses until August at the earliest.

According to the Alabama Bar Association, a secure, dedicated juror website has been developed so that potential jurors can, for the first time ever, qualify for jury service in advance of their appearance date, avoiding the requirement of large numbers of jurors gathering on opening day of jury service for qualification and empaneling.

Individuals who receive a juror summons and do not have internet or smartphone access will be able to contact their Circuit Court Clerk office for assistance.

Jurors who are at a heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 due to age or an underlying medical condition may use the online form to request excusal or deference to a later date.

“Many Circuit and District Courts will be posting additional information on the websites regarding heightened safety protocols that will be in place to make jury service and court attendance safer during the current pandemic,” said J. Langford Floyd of the Alabama State Bar.

Those new procedures include sanitizing surfaces, one-way travel staircases where applicable, limitations on the number of people permitted in an elevator, newly configured jury boxes to seat jurors at least six feet apart, jury deliberation rooms that permit jurors to maintain appropriate social distancing during deliberations and recesses.

Taylor said, “The county has gone to great lengths to work on having the courthouse ready. The security officers will be taking people’s temperature, we will only be allowing a certain amount of people in each courtroom, and we are limiting the number of cases that we set at any given time. We are following all health recommendations in order to make it as safe as possible. I appreciate the County Commission, the Sheriff and the EMA for all they have done to help us.”

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