Trials to resume, but won’t look quite the same

Island County Superior Court is scheduled to hold its first jury trial on Aug. 18, nearly five months since they were halted because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The trials will be held with everyone appearing in person — including witnesses, lawyers, the judge and jurors — but the courtroom and the process will look markedly different to ensure safety for everyone, Court Administrator Megan Frazier explained.

Trials won’t look like scenes from “Law and Order.” Lawyers will be making their arguments behind masks, which everyone must wear, and won’t be able to approach the jury, as the six-foot rule will be enforced.

The prospective jurors will be divided into small groups interspersed into three different jury rooms. Instead of the small jury box, during the trial the jurors will sit in the gallery, where the audience usually sits, in order to practice social distancing. To allow the public to watch trials, video of the trial will be set up in another room where people can watch, according to Frazier.

The lawyers’ tables and the podium will be repositioned. The court administrator explained that lawyers will be encouraged to show evidence electronically — on a screen — and the jurors will wear gloves to handle evidence that must be passed around.

The jurors will be required to do a symptom check questionnaire each morning and court staff will continue to participate in daily screenings.

In addition, the court and the county facilities department have implemented a new cleaning schedule that includes sanitizing courtrooms after each hearing.

In March, the state Supreme Court issued an unprecedented order that put trials and many types of hearings on hold and required courts to allow telephonic or video appearances in the hearings that were still necessary, which included the regular Monday hearings on the “court calendar.”

Frazier said the Administrative Office of the Court set up a work group to develop guidelines that courts statewide can use when restarting jury trials. Then an Island County workgroup made up of representatives for the prosecution, public defense, law enforcement, the court clerk, court administration, the jail, the judges and others involved in superior court was formed to come up with specific practices that will work for Island County courtrooms.

Eric Ohme, chief criminal deputy prosecutor, noted that there are many hurdles to overcome to hold safe trials, but that the many officials in the work group worked out the details over numerous meetings.

“I think that the court has a good plan going forward,” he said.

A handful of trials have taken place in other counties in recent weeks. Frazier said an organization of court administrators from across the state regularly communicate about court issues, including how trials have been going. It hasn’t been perfectly smooth, but they were conducted.

“I think it’s a learning process for everyone,” she said.

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