By Royal Calkins
Despite deep concerns among defense lawyers, the Monterey County courts plan to resume criminal jury trials on June 1, three weeks from now, once the county’s current shelter-in-place order expires.
A news release Tuesday from the court executive officer, Chris Ruhl, says jurors will be spread throughout the courtrooms to conform with COVID-19 social distancing rules, which means members of the public are likely to be excluded from the proceedings. The news release said phone lines will be set up to allow people to listen in.
The courts stress that reopening is important in order to honor criminal defendants’ right to speedy trials, but at least some local defense lawyers are objecting.
Among other things, trial preparation is often an intense, around-the-clock effort that easily could be interrupted by a last-minute extension of the shelter-in-place rules.
“I’m thinking that any jurors that would be willing to show up would be highly prosecution-minded,” said a well-known Monterey County lawyer who asked not to be identified for fear of angering Presiding Judge Julie Culver. “Look at the people going shopping now or going into restaurants. Most of them are pretty hard-core conservatives. I don’t think I want many of those on my jury to be honest with you.”
In some counties, courts are discussing the start of virtual trials, with jurors listening in and deliberating from their homes via Zoom or other technology. That will, of course, raise questions about whether the process would cause poor people, without access to computer technology, to be even more underrepresented than they are now.
The federal court system announced that it hopes to resume trials June 15 but has not provided details of how they would proceed.
A Monterey County prosecutor, who also asked not to be named, said the right to a speedy trial is an ideal that seldom translates into reality.
“The defense bar makes far more motions for continuances than the prosecution,” she said. “I imagine what will happen now is that everyone will waive” their right to a speedy trial.
A Salinas defense lawyer said honoring the safety protocols could create so many issues that chances for fair trials seem slim.
“The prospect of conducting a jury trial at which the defendant, attorneys, court staff, witnesses, and jurors are required to wear masks and to maintain at least six feet of separation presents more logistical and due process concerns than I can count,” he said.
“How can an attorney consult with his or her client during trial from six feet away and when they both are masked?”
That lawyer mentioned that the current rules greatly limit the number of people who can attend even outdoor funerals.
“How can it be safe to put over a dozen people in the same room for several days?” he said.
Adding to the concerns, the people most at risk from COVID-19 are the elderly, African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders who, because of the statistics, could be among those most likely to attempt to avoid serving on juries. Among the legal system’s thorniest issues for decades has been a preponderance of juries with too few minority members.
Summoned jurors with specific health issues will be allowed to defer their service, the court administrator said.
As the news release points out, California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye on March 23 suspended all jury trials for 60 days and later moved the end date to April 29. She said this week that the courts “are strongly encouraged to collaborate with local justice partners to conduct a trial at an earlier date, if a court may do so in compliance with applicable health and safety laws, regulations, and orders.”
The news release says the Monterey County courts are implementing “an array of measures to ensure the safety of everyone involved in jury trials — jurors, court staff, defendants, attorneys and judicial officers.”
“Many fewer jurors will be summoned to court on any given day to allow for appropriate safeguards. Social distancing will be maintained throughout the trial process, from jury selection through jury deliberation. Face masks and/or face coverings will continue to be required for everyone who comes to the courthouse. Alternative larger venues to accommodate jury selection will be employed. Fewer trials will be in session at any one time to reduce the number of people in the courthouse.”
Presiding Judge Culver said, “We treasure jurors as one of the most valuable assets of our democracy. The safety of our jurors who fill this vital and essential role in our community is always a top priority. We have never been more grateful for the willingness of the people of Monterey County to participate in jury service, as it is truly a cornerstone of our democracy.”
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