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How Nelson County jury trials have changed during the pandemic

How Nelson County jury trials have changed during the pandemic

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Following a roughly yearlong hiatus, Nelson County jury trials are once again underway, but prospective juries or trial-goers should expect markedly different procedures than in pre-pandemic times.

The Jury Trial Preparedness Plan, developed by Nelson Circuit Judge Michael Doucette in consultation with judges of the 24th Judicial District and other county and health officials, outlines the various changes to the format.

“This plan is perhaps even overly cautious, which is why I feel so confident that it is sufficient to limit transmission,” Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Erik Laub said in an email, adding ongoing vaccination efforts in the county is especially reassuring.

“Obviously, no one can ever plan for every single scenario or take into account risks outside of our control, but I genuinely am confident that this plan is as effective as possible.”

Laub said as new challenges arise, officials will amend the plan to ensure everyone’s safety.

The Virginia Supreme Court gave the greenlight Dec. 11 for jury trials to resume in Nelson that same day, but a subsequent order signed by Doucette in January extended the jury trial drought until March, citing a surge in post-holiday cases of COVID-19.

According to the Virginia Department of Health, Nelson County — with a population of just less than 15,000 — had amassed only 188 total positive cases since the pandemic reached Virginia in March 2020. That number shot to 768 one year later.

Perhaps the most notable change, jury trials will be held in the county’s newer general district courtroom rather than the historic circuit courtroom.

The document states that, due to the circuit courtroom’s small size and tight quarters, it is “not adaptable to jury trials in the time of COVID-19.”

In the Circuit courtroom, the jury sits below and in front of the judge facing the witness stand with attorney’s tables flanking either side and a small spectators’ gallery separated by railing.

There is a spectators’ balcony, but the public is not permitted access due to safety reasons.

Masks or face coverings also are mandated for any person entering the courthouse and must stay on at all times unless specifically excused by the presiding judge.

Any person removing their mask will be required to stay more than 10 feet from others, exceeding the typical 6-foot rule seen in most cases.

When testifying, witnesses may remove their mask or face covering so the jury can see the witnesses’ faces, as long as they meet the 10-foot distancing requirement. The court also may grant an attorney permission to remove their facemask if it impedes the lawyer’s ability to communicate with the witness or the court.

Jurors unable to wear masks for medical reasons, or those who refuse to do so, will be dismissed or deferred depending on the medical issue.

Criminal defendants may be asked to remove their face covering during pre-trial questioning to ensure the prospective jurors can indicate whether or not the know or recognize the defendant, according to the plan.

In terms of social distancing, counsel and co-counsel are required to maintain social distancing with each other and clients at all times, the document reads.

Attorneys and witnesses also are expected to limit their movement in the courtroom to maintain social distancing not including any permission from the judge to the contrary.

Jurors also will not be permitted to physically handle any evidence. Documentary and photographic exhibits will be shared with jurors via electronic means. Bailiffs, while wearing masks and gloves, will handle evidence from a 6-foot distance to allow them to observe the object.

Court records show Nelson County Circuit Court had a civil jury trial in April and is tentatively scheduled to have its first criminal jury trial in May. Kevin Matthew Ramsey, of Shipman, faces 20 sexual assault charges and is slated to go before jurors May 17. The trial is anticipated to take three days.

The document states all jury trials will commence on Monday, partly due to the general district court meeting Wednesdays.

In those instances where trials are anticipated to stretch into Wednesday, the general district court will instead use the circuit courtroom or the juvenile and domestic relations court instead, Laub said.

Pre-pandemic, the court sends roughly 50 summonses per term, netting a pool of roughly 40 potential jurors, or 80%. Due to the county’s relatively small population and caseload, Nelson averages only a single jury trial per term, the document states.

That yield is anticipated to drop to 50% under the pandemic.

Laub said it was his understanding speaking with other court officials that the drop-off accounts for age- or virus-related concerns or automatic disqualifications that the Supreme Court provided guidance on.

“We all just tried to guess as to those numbers so they really are just projected drops,” Laub said.

When it comes time for deliberations, jurors will use the old supervisors’ boardroom where they will be allowed to handle evidence so long as they are wearing provided gloves and using hand sanitizer.

If individuals become sick during the trial, they are required to immediately notify the court so immediate steps will be taken to limit potential transmission.

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