In defiance of the sign outside, marking its maximum capacity at 16 people, Courtroom 7A was packed.
Twenty-five prospective jurors occupied almost every bench not cordoned off for social distancing. They sat not just on the blue X’s designating assigned seats, but also in half the chairs of the jury box, as well as a bench normally reserved for the defense’s friends and family.
This wasn’t supposed to happen.
The Durham County Courthouse has taken a cautious approach to jury trials during the pandemic. These proceedings were paused between March 2020 and January 2021 over COVID-19 concerns. And since restarting jury trials, administrators have fought to ensure that no more than one of them happens at once.
But the last week of September, for the first time in a year and a half, two jury trials overlapped. This unexpected event, the cause of the crowd in Courtroom 7A, left court officials bending rules and making last-minute judgment calls.
“In my mind, I couldn’t see it,” Trial Court Administrator E. Deneen Barrier said, “but apparently it happened.”
How it happened
There are two ways in which limiting jury trials helps prevent COVID-19 spread.
For one thing, it reduces the number of people in the courthouse at any given time. And in Superior Court, where the county’s most serious civil and criminal disputes are settled, the one-a-day strategy keeps proceedings socially distanced in the spacious Courtroom 7D.
Courtroom 7A, a fraction of the size, typically hosts civil matters that don’t need a jury.
But courthouses are complicated, and sometimes things don’t go as planned. As defendants take plea deals and plaintiffs settle out of court, many scheduled jury trials never make it to the courtroom.
“A lot is up in the air when everybody walks in the door,” Barrier said.
The morning of Sept. 27, it was still unclear whether a scheduled criminal trial would start that day, Trial Court Coordinator Suzanne Hansen said in an email. Another jury trial was set to begin in civil court on Sept. 28. However, Hansen believed this would be postponed if the criminal trial moved forward.
The criminal trial did move forward – but Judge Michael O’Foghludha, who was to preside over the civil case, pushed for his proceedings to begin anyway. He got his way, resulting in the surprise double-booking.
The criminal jury trial involved an alleged assault, kidnapping and strangling in June 2018. And the civil trial stemmed from a September 2019 incident in which a Prius struck the plaintiff while she was crossing Duke University Road.
Prospective jurors for the civil trial gathered downstairs, while those assigned to the criminal case milled around the seventh floor of the courthouse, wearing red “juror” badges. The court had empaneled these Durham residents the previous day.
Meanwhile, in Courtroom 7A, O’Foghludha briefed attorneys in the civil case on how a jury trial would work in a room that hadn’t seen one since before the pandemic. O’Foghludha had ready answers to basic questions about where the courts would hold prospective jurors and who would be in the courtroom at any given time.
And he appeared in good humor, as he voiced his thoughts on dismissing prospective jurors.
“They may be terrible jurors, and you may not want them. In fact, you probably don’t want them,” he told the attorneys. “But I’m not excusing them from doing their civic duty.”
The clerk, meanwhile, appeared stressed. The trial would wind up taking a toll on the woman, who took a day off from work after it concluded.
O’Foghludha still had to resolve some issues on the fly.
Would jurors and attorneys get separate bathrooms, or would they need to share one? (They’d be sharing.) Could a deputy give jurors directions to the courtroom, or would they need an escort? (After consulting with the bailiff, O’Foghludha decided that would depend on how well jurors responded to instructions.)
At one point, even the judge tripped over the tricky logistics. He’d originally been talking as if 30 jurors would be in the courtroom at once, but realized midway through the briefing that there would only be 25.
Finally, with most details settled, O’Foghludha heard a few pretrial motions and then called for jurors to enter.
A grueling process
Selecting a jury is rarely quick or simple. But Courtroom 7A’s limited seating made this empanelment even harder than usual.
O’Foghludha acknowledged the challenges while welcoming prospective jurors.
“I know the question that’s on everyone’s mind right now is, ‘Oh my, how long is this going to take?’” he said.
To begin, the clerk called 12 names from a stack of shuffled index cards. She then had the 12 line up at the center of the courtroom and assigned each a juror number. Those who weren’t called exited.
None of this is standard practice in the Durham County Courthouse, where everyone would typically have remained in the courtroom for the next leg of the proceedings.
Even with this smaller crowd, Courtroom 7A still exceeded its maximum capacity of 16 people. In addition to the prospective jurors, the room also held six representatives for the defense and prosecution, as well as the defendant and plaintiff’s spouses, the judge, the clerk, the bailiff and the court reporter. That’s 24 people.
Everyone present was masked, although one man’s mask kept slipping. None of the prospective jurors complained about the number of people in the room. But they generally respected social distancing.
Between 11 a.m. and 4:15 p.m., the prosecution asked a series of questions to determine if any of those summoned were ineligible to serve on the jury.
Some judges allow lawyers to dismiss prospective jurors as soon as they hear something disqualifying. However, O’Foghludha said he’d seen interviewees try to copy what others said in hopes of being disqualified. So he instructed the prosecution to hold off on challenges until it had asked everyone all of its questions.
The first round of interviews ended with five of the 12 released. A deputy arrived with their replacements, and the prosecution began a new interview cycle.
The seven who’d already been interviewed watched from the benches in weary resignation.
During pretrial proceedings, O’Foghludha told the court he hoped to finish the trial by Oct. 1. In reality, the trial lasted until Oct. 7, with jury empanelment concluding on Sept. 29.
The jury found the plaintiff was not entitled to any damages.
The criminal trial, which ran as usual in Courtroom 7D, finished empaneling jurors toward the end of Sept. 27 and ended with a not guilty verdict on Sept. 29.
Will this happen again?
Before the pandemic, the Durham County Courthouse commonly held multiple jury trials on the same day, said Barrier, the court administrator. It could host up to four at once, though this strained courthouse resources.
The courts will someday return to that level of activity, but it’s unlikely to happen any time soon. September’s double-booking does not mark a shift in the courthouse’s overall approach.
“It’s just happenstance,” Barrier said.
PHOTO ABOVE: Users of the Durham County’s Courthouse must practice social distancing as a COVID safety measure. By Josie Vonk, The 9th Street Journal.