ALLEGHENY CO., Pa. — The COVID-19 pandemic put a lot of court activity across western Pennsylvania and the rest of the state on hold. The number of cases in Allegheny County may mean no jury trials until 2021, but Target 11′s Rick Earle discovered that some counties in our area have already resumed jury trials with little or no problems.
“I believe we were probably one of the first in the state that got back up and running,” Fayette County President Judge John Wagner told Rick Earle. “We were able to try five or six jury cases in three of the five courtrooms, two of the courtrooms are just too small so we just can’t use jurors in there.”
To accomplish this, Wagner said the county used what he called a “common sense” approach. Wagner said they also called in health experts from West Virginia University to evaluate their COVID-19 safety precautions.
Among the precautions:
- Temperature checks at the main entrance.
- Face masks required for entry.
- Plexiglass shields around the witness stand and another shield separating the prosecution from the defense.
- Potential jurors used to be called in together in one group of 150. Now, they are separated into three groups and brought in at different times. They must also socially distance when in the courthouse.
- The courtroom is also disinfected several times a day.
- Jurors no longer sit together in a crowded jury box. They’re spread out in the courtroom while listening to testimony and witnesses. They also deliberate in the courtroom because the jury room is too small.
“We’ve been very lucky. I just you know, I just had a fear in the back of my mind of how the backlog was going to start to build up and what we were going to do with it come fall. So, we wanted to start to whittle away at it and we did,” Wagner said.
Court administrators feared they might not be able to get enough jurors willing to serve because of the virus, so they expanded the potential jury pool.
“We summon more than we will need so that if a high-risk population (potential juror) needs excused, they’re able to contact the jury commissioners and receive an excuse,” said Fayette County Common Pleas Court Solicitor Garnet Gordon.
Earle asked, “And you’ve been pretty liberal with that?”
“Yes, the court considers any reason to be excused at the time,” Gordon said.
Gordon said the courts didn’t have any trouble getting enough jurors to serve, but after a COVID-19 outbreak at the nearby Fayette County Jail in early August, the county put jury trials on hold again. They plan to them after Labor Day.
Target 11 discovered that jury trials have also restarted in Westmoreland, Washington and Beaver counties. Those counties have taken similar steps to mitigate the spread of the virus.
Beaver County, for instance, only allows 25 jurors at a time. Jurors have said that they are very comfortable with the process, according to court officials.
While jury trials in those counties restarted, Target 11 learned that jury trials in both Butler County and Allegheny County are still on hold.
In Allegheny County, an assistant district attorney died from the virus and other attorneys have expressed concern about a lack of precautions at the courthouse. Some accused judges of not enforcing the mask regulation and there are no temperature checks at the main entrance.
The court administrator said they have taken steps to stop the spread of the virus.
President Judge Kim Clark even appeared at a hearing to explain the steps the county has taken, including sanitizing courtrooms, requiring social distancing and urging more virtual hearings and proceedings.
While Butler County is now exploring options for restarting this fall, Allegheny County many not resume until next year.
“I think we are doing it the right way here not having jury trials at this point. The other counties can do what they want, but I certainly wouldn’t be doing jury trials,” said veteran Defense Attorney Pat Thomassey, who’s been involved in some of the most high-profile cases in Allegheny County.
Thomassey doesn’t believe defendants can get a fair shake in a trial restricted by social distancing and mask wearing jurors and witnesses. He said he will continue to request postponements of his jury trials set to begin in counties that have resumed proceedings.
“The jurors can’t be 50 feet away from them and with masks on they can’t access their credibility. You have to look and see how they testify, their demeanor. Did it have the ring of truth to it? And when they are speaking through a mask, I don’t think you can properly assess it,” he said.
Thomassey said masks also compromise an attorney’s ability to connect with jurors.
While some court hearings have been held virtually, he said that can’t be done with jury trials. With COVID-19 concerns at the Allegheny County Courthouse, Thomassey believes jurors will ultimately be reluctant to serve.
“I wouldn’t let my mother come here if she were still alive,” he said.
Earle added that the other counties where trials have resumed have a much smaller case load than Allegheny County and a much lower number of positive COVID-19 cases.
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