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Granted approval, Roanoke-area courts hope to resume jury trials within a month

Granted approval, Roanoke-area courts hope to resume jury trials within a month

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For the first time since springtime COVID-19 precautions put limits on legal activities across Virginia, courthouses in the Roanoke Valley will soon be able to resume jury trials.

“I am pleased to report that a few minutes ago, the [Virginia] Supreme Court advised us that, effective immediately, it had approved the jury trial resumption plans for each of the three courts in the 23rd Judicial Circuit,” Roanoke’s Chief Circuit Court Judge David Carson wrote in a news release Friday afternoon.

“While the approval is effective immediately, I expect that it will be 2-4 weeks before litigants will actually be prepared to proceed with trial,” Carson said Friday in an email.

The 23rd Judicial Circuit covers the three separate state courthouses in Roanoke, Roanoke County and Salem. The state Supreme Court approved Carson’s plan — revised from an earlier draft in July — which presented extensive outlines for safe practices at each of the individual buildings. The previous plan had been a catch-all for the three facilities.

A resumption of Roanoke-area jury trials will mark an effort to return to normal after a long courtroom recess.

Roanoke County’s last criminal jury trial was more than 10 months ago, in December. Its most recent civil jury finished just under the wire on March 12, the day Gov. Ralph Northam announced a judicial emergency.

Roanoke hasn’t held a criminal jury trial since mid-February, and its last civil hearing by panel was in January.

Since then, gridlock has set in on local dockets, with defendants exercising their right to have their cases heard by a jury, even as many prosecutors have waived that option to speed the process along.

Roanoke currently has 24 criminal cases awaiting a jury, most of which involve homicides or other violent offenses. Roanoke County has 27 potential jury trials on its docket through December, according to the circuit court clerk’s office, and Salem prosecutor Tom Bowers said his office now has 14 on deck.

Monday marked the seven-month anniversary of the statewide judicial emergency, which restricted court operations to the barest essentials and completely prohibited jury trials. The Virginia Supreme Court gradually dialed back some limitations, with exceptions, while requiring the use of masks, teleconferencing and social distancing measures.

Some of the newer precautions in the revised plans include:

  • Jury selection will occur the day before the trial begins, with prospective jurors arriving staggered, in separate panels.
  • Selected jurors will sit in the gallery, where the public normally sits, and will deliberate in another courtroom, rather than in a smaller jury room.
  • Lawyers will be required to remain stationary and can’t approach witnesses.
  • A health-based questionnaire, issued in advance, will help cull potential jurors before they show up in person. This form concerns COVID-19 issues and is not part of the normal jury selection process.
  • Court will recess at least every two hours to allow cleaning and sanitizing of high-touch areas. Courtroom bailiffs already clean witness stands between testimony during non-jury trials.
  • Jurors will be provided lunches to discourage travel outside the courthouse during the trial, and those who do leave will be re-screened upon their return.

Last month the high court began allowing juries to resume in some localities, of which the closest to the Roanoke Valley is Alleghany County Circuit Court. As of Friday afternoon, the Supreme Court’s website listed 16 jurisdictions or circuits that may start holding jury trials again, but the 23rd Circuit had not yet been added and it was unclear whether others would be as well.

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