While the surge of COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Amherst and Nelson counties, jury trials have been at a standstill for about a year now with no firm idea of when residents will again take part in the judicial process.
Amherst Circuit Judge Michael Garrett on Jan. 25 signed an order suspending all jury trials through Feb. 28 as a result of the pandemic, which he described in the document as a natural disaster.
The process of interviewing and seating jurors, a time-consuming process that brings dozens of residents into Amherst and Nelson courthouses and seats them in close proximity, has been non-existent since the pandemic was declared last March. Garrett’s order said public health information shows a significant increase in COVID-19 infections throughout the 24th Judicial Circuit, which includes both counties.
“Due to the large number of persons required for jury selection and the number of jurors required for a jury trial, the court finds that to conduct a jury trial under present conditions would impose a substantial health risk to participants in the trial, those working in the courthouse and the general public,” Garrett’s order states.
In January, Amherst County had the highest number of new COVID-19 cases ever reported in the county in a single day, the order states.
A similar order signed by Nelson Circuit Judge Michael Doucette in January also delayed the start of any jury trials until the end of February amid a post-holiday surge of COVID-19 cases in Nelson County.
As of Feb. 1 Amherst County had 2,401 positive cases of the virus, 58 hospitalizations and 11 deaths while Nelson County recorded 647 cases, 27 hospitalizations and six deaths, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
Nelson County Commonwealth’s Attorney Daniel Rutherford said in a phone interview he knew several jury trials on the docket set to begin around July.
In an effort to “streamline the criminal justice system,” Rutherford said, his office stopped requesting jury trials at the onset of the pandemic, leaning more heavily on either bench trials or plea agreements. He noted the nearly year-long delay has not heavily affected preparations or overall caseload.
Amherst County Commonwealth’s Attorney Lyle Carver said to bring so many people in a room at the same time for an extended time in an era of social distancing is highly challenging.
“We’ve had to adapt and do the best we can,” Carver said of moving cases forward without the option of seating juries. “We have to still get through cases the best we can but there’s been lots of challenges. There’s lots of issues and we all have to be flexible and adaptable.”
But as jury trials are set to restart within the coming months, also looming for courts is a reform to the state’s jury sentencing procedure, effectively ending more than 200 years of a practice that allowed juries to recommend sentences for defendants.
Under the new law, which goes into effect July 1, juries in Virginia only will be able to decide guilt in most cases, shifting the responsibility of sentencing solely to judges. Defendants still can request a recommended sentence from a jury, but Rutherford said he expected that to be unlikely.
“It gave the citizens of Nelson a voice in the criminal justice process from guilt to what the punishment should be, and that voice is being taken away,” Rutherford said. “Our General Assembly does not trust the citizens of Nelson County to do what’s best for justice and that’s a travesty.”
Virginia is one of only two states — the other being Kentucky — where juries must also recommend a sentence until the new law takes effect.
“Most defendants plead out, even when they did not do it. This is a very difficult decision people have to make,” said Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, an advocate of the new law, according an article by the Virginia Mercury news organization in late 2020. “This would be a revolutionary change in the way we do sentencing.”
Carver said juries no longer getting the opportunity to participate in the sentencing aspect of cases is anticipated to lead to an increase in requests from defendants for jury trials.
“Logistically, I don’t know how we accommodate it,” Carver said of the strain on resources.
He said the legislature’s attempt for a more fair judicial process is noble and valid but presents logistical issues in already challenging climate of seating juries. “This feels rushed and like we’re ignoring potential consequences,” Carver said of the new law. “I think it could have been studied more and had more stakeholders in the room.”
Carver said juries historically are likely to recommend sentences heavier than judges do because they don’t have access to sentencing guidelines. However, he believes they should still be trusted to carry a case entirely through.
“It seems strange to me we’re not going to trust them to do that,” Carver said.
Joseph Sanzone, a Lynchburg-area defense attorney, said he thinks jury sentencing is needed and he fully favors it in criminal and civil cases.
“I think it’s tremendously fair,” Sanzone said of jury sentencing, later adding he value’s the citizens’ input. “Once you remove jury sentencing, you take the community’s voice out of cases.”
He said some lawyers may be afraid of jury trials, but if he is requesting a jury trial he wants jurors to be involved in sentencing as well, explaining his innocent clients may be better understood by the citizens.
“I always tell my clients about 80% of them get it right,” Sanzone said.
Rutherford also estimates an increase in defendants not waiving their right to jury trials in Nelson County under the new law.
“In theory it would be more of an incentive for a defendant to want a jury trial,” Rutherford said. “It allows them to be able to partially go before our citizens in the county but not have to face the repercussions of what our citizens would feel like is a just sentence.”
Carver said he appreciates the perspective residents, as jurors, bring and gives him insight on how they view cases. He mentioned the conviction of Trevor Dawson Ewers, a Monroe man found guilty in September 2019 of shooting and injuring an Amherst County Sheriff’s deputy two years prior, as an example. The jury recommended a 103-year sentence and Carver said he feels that sent a strong message directly from the community about violence shown against law enforcement.
Carver said that is helpful because he doesn’t want a situation where he is detached from what the people want as far as carrying out justice.
“There’s something special about letting citizens weigh in on a case,” Carver said. “When I have a jury trial, I get to see how the constituents value a case... It’s helpful for people to know the system.”
Nelson County Times reporter Nick Cropper contributed.