DOUBLE SPRINGS - New procedures designed to keep jurors and other participants in the court system in Winston County protected from COVID-19, will go into effect Oct. 26, as jury trials resume, with jury selection moved to the Double Springs Municipal Building.
The state gave counties the option to resume jury trials on Sept. 14, after the trials were basically shut down in February due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The last time we had jury trials was Feb. 3. We would have a hard time Zooming jury trials if it wasn’t for Double Springs,” Winston County Circuit Judge Lee Carter said, referring to a virtual meeting web application, Zoom, which has become highly popular since the pandemic began.
The Winston County Commission, by law, sets the location for court proceedings to be held. The commission is planning at their next regular meeting Tuesday, Oct. 13, to ratify and confirm by resolution the official change of location for jury selection to the municipal building due to the ongoing pandemic. One of the requirements was for that facility to be in the town limits of Double Springs, Hayes stressed.
“I commend the judges for doing this because they have got to get caught up,” Hayes pointed out. “The virus has caused cities, counties and the state all kind of problems trying to stay on schedule.
“It’s been impossible to do under the regulations we have had,” Hayes added. “We have to get through this thing.
The Town of Double Springs agreed to furnish the municipal building, with its large, open room that will be used for jury selection while keeping six feet social distance between potential jurors, as well as court officials. Masks will be required for everyone entering the building, Carter stressed.
“Our courtrooms are not big enough to social distance,” Carter noted. Plans are to have 40 to 60 citizens show up for jury selection, with 12 jurors selected, plus at least two alternates for a regular jury trial.
When the grand jury is held, 18 jurors are chosen, court officials added.
“We can’t keep that many people six feet apart,” said Carter. “By having it at (the municipal building) it will allow us to space people out.”
Once the jury selection process has been completed, court officials will relocate back to the courtrooms at Winston County Courthouse and judicial complex for the actual jury trials.
At the courthouse or judicial complex, rules will be different as far as seating for both the jurors and members of the public during jury trials, Carter stressed.
“Instead of being in the jury box, we will have the jurors where the spectators sit,” Carter said. “We will space them out, and we will still have a little room in the back for spectators but not a lot.”
When asked if there would be problems with jurors and spectators sitting in the same area of the courtroom, Carter responded. “We’ll have sufficient distance between where the jurors stop and spectators begin, so that is not going to be a problem.
“We’ll use tape to section off where people can or cannot sit,” Carter added. The social distancing of jurors will mean some may sit in the jury box, he said.
“We’ll have the last maybe three rows...there would be two benches on each side. We could put probably eight people, eight spectators, inside the courtroom,” Carter continued.
Judge Burt added that court officials would also choose a grand jury at the municipal building.
Jury summons were mailed out on Oct. 1, and should begin arriving in homes of potential jurors this week, according to court officials.
The new jury summons process has recently been developed in response to the current COVID-19 pandemic, creating the first time an online jury qualification process has been used in the Alabama state court system, officials said.
Those individuals receiving a summons for jury duty will be instructed to log onto a dedicated jury website to complete a short questionnaire using a secure PIN assigned to each juror, officials said.
This website may be accessed by computer or smart phone.
By completing the form, potential jurors will be able to qualify for jury service or request to be excused from jury service, based on a recognized exception online rather than in person.
In fact, jurors who are at a heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 due to age or an underlying medical condition may use the online form to request that jury service be deferred until a later date.
These requests to be deferred from jury duty should be made no later than Oct. 20, court officials stressed.
“The law has been that anyone can ask for a deferral,” Judge Carter stated. “It really doesn’t get you out of jury duty. It just postpones it, so at some point, you are going to have to do it.”
If the deferrals are excused, for example, by a physician, the potential juror does not have to return. However, if the juror is deferred, that means he or she must come back at a later date, which will be set between them and the court system.
“The first deferral is automatic,” Judge Carter noted, “so if you need one and ask for one, you are going to get it.
“We are going to give the benefit of the doubt the first time,” Carter noted. “After that, it’s a case by case basis. It just depends on the situation.”
Presiding Circuit Daryl Burt said the court system deals with deferrals all the time. “We just have one more added condition that we have to deal with, and that’s the COVID thing,” he said.
Individuals who receive a juror summons, and do not have access to internet or a smart phone enabling them to complete online registration, may contact the office of Judge Lee Carter at the telephone number provided on the summons.
“My big concern is this,” Judge Burt began. “We’ve got people that have received a jury summons and they are showing up to fulfill their civic duty of serving on a jury.
“So, it’s our responsibility to make this process as safe and efficient as possible for the jurors,” Burt added.
“We want them to have a good experience. We want them to have a safe experience, and the best way to do that is follow the guidelines and rules that have been set out from the State Department of Public Health, the CDC (Center for Disease Control).
“The easiest way to do that is have everyone socially distanced and have everyone wearing masks or face shields,” Burt added.
The jury trial term beginning Oct. 26 will last about a week, with plans to have four terms in 2021, according to Carter.
“We’ll be able to catch up,” Carter said.
“As far as the backlog goes,” added Judge Burt, “It’s only going to be the cases that are set for trial.”
Circuit and district courts have also implemented safety protocols to make jury safer during the current pandemic.
These measures include sanitizing surfaces, social distancing measures, contactless sanitation stations, limitations on the number of people in an elevator, newly configured jury box and a new jury room or location, to make sure they keep six foot social distance during deliberations and recess, officials said.
“We still have been doing a lot of hearings by video conference. We have been taking pleas. We’ve been having probation hearings, pre-trial hearings, civil cases, non-jury bench trials,” said Carter.
During this virtual or zoom conference, Judge Carter will start pleas several hours in the morning time,with Presiding Circuit Judge Daryl Burt picking up afternoon pleas in his court.
“We split it up at different times, so we won’t have problems with attorneys (scheduling time),” Judge Burt stated.
For instance, Judge Burt will be on Zoom with his court reporter, while the district attorney’s office will be videotaped in their office.
If an inmate from the county jail is due up for the plea date, video conference will allow that inmate to be in front a computer screen. The same would be true for state probation, community corrections, they said.
“So we have everyone on stream that we need for a plea,” Judge Burt pointed out. “We’re taking almost as many pleas virtually as we normally would that pleaded.”
See complete story in the Northwest Alabamian.