Court officials separated by glass dividers, seats taped off to create additional distance, and jurors scattered in the courtroom gallery where the public sits. In the Durham County Courthouse, this is the new normal for jury trials.
On Jan. 27, Durham County Superior Court concluded its first in-person jury trial since last March, when former state Chief Justice Cheri Beasley closed courtrooms across North Carolina in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Her successor, Paul Newby, who defeated Beasley in the November election, made good on a campaign pledge in January, when he ordered the courts to reopen for in-person trials and other proceedings.
At the same time, Chief Justice Newby emphasized the continued importance of protecting the health of everyone in the courthouse. Face masks and social distancing are required, and anyone who has been exposed to the coronavirus or shows symptoms is not allowed to enter the building.
Court officials have made physical, technological and scheduling adjustments to prepare for the new in-person proceedings, while keeping COVID precautions in place.
‘Just at a slower pace’
In the past, Durham Superior Court typically held a few jury trials each month, but now there will be only about one each month.
“Every courtroom has a new capacity that is 20% of its typical capacity, to make people space out,” said Sarah Willets, a spokeswoman for District Attorney Satana Deberry. “And because of that, we have to reduce the docket for each day. Everything is happening, it’s just happening at a slower pace.”
Although jury trials will be held in person, judges will conduct some proceedings online, including juvenile cases and first appearances.
For first appearances, the judge and other court officials typically participate in person at the courthouse, while the defendant appears on video. This arrangement reduces the need to transport detainees between the Durham County Detention Facility and the courthouse, in order to cut the risk of spreading the coronavirus, Willets said.
The courthouse is open to the public, but courtroom seating is limited to allow for social distancing. Parties involved in a court proceeding get priority. Journalists also can attend trials but should contact the presiding judge in advance for approval, Willets said.
The N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts issued guidelines for selecting the order in which jury trials are held, but Deberry is ultimately responsible for setting the court calendar.
“Our priorities remain the same as they have always been, which is to focus on trying the most serious and most violent crimes,” Deberry said.
The docket is being selected by how essential each case is and whether it’s ready to go to trial, Willets said.
Deberry said she will work to clear court cases from the pandemic backlog this year.
“We are optimistic about continuing to move our District Court cases forward and adding more of those to the calendar,” she said.
9th Street Journal reporter Dryden Quigley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Top: In-person trials have resumed at the Durham County Courthouse – but with fewer trials than before the COVID-19 pandemic, and with fewer people in the courtroom. Some proceedings will still take place online. Staff photo by Sho Hatakeyama