More Lynchburg-area courts are preparing to restart jury trials after a year of emergency suspension during the coronavirus pandemic, with some scheduled for next week.
Jury trials were suspended at the beginning of the pandemic by the Virginia Supreme Court, which in the summer required all jurisdictions to develop and submit a plan for conducting those trials safely in the future. Once the plans were approved, the courts could restart trials at their discretion.
Most circuit courts in the Lynchburg area delayed jury trials despite getting the green light from the state in December and January. Judges in Lynchburg and the counties of Amherst, Bedford and Campbell — which all are in the 24th Judicial Circuit — signed orders that cited climbing COVID-19 infection rates in postponing jury trials.
The coronavirus pandemic reached its zenith locally in January — the Central Virginia Health District, made up of Lynchburg and surrounding counties, saw a record high of 25.5% of COVID-19 tests returning positive Jan. 1, and Lynchburg General Hospital experienced its peak stress Jan. 13 with 133 COVID-19 patients requiring about 38% of its beds.
Since then, those numbers have dropped dramatically. The district has registered about 6.4% of tests returning positive, and LGH has seen COVID-19 patient numbers in the single digits in recent weeks. About a quarter of residents have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Judges sitting in Campbell Circuit Court referenced those declining numbers in an order entered Monday that opens up jury trials April 1, and court records indicate a jury will be called April 1.
Lynchburg Circuit Court Clerk Todd Swisher said the city plans to resume jury trials in April as well. Prior to the pandemic, he said, the court saw around three to four jury trials per month. Now more than 100 cases have built up over the year of pandemic delays.
“It is difficult to provide an exact number of what that may look like because it is a very fluid process; however, it is a fair assessment to say that the volume of jury trials will increase,” he said in an email.
Judge Michael Garrett entered an order Wednesday for jury trials in Amherst Circuit Court to resume in mid-April, said Erica Hudson, with the Amherst County Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney. She said the first one is scheduled for April 14 and no “flood” of trials is on the docket — so far, two more jury trials are scheduled in the following four months.
According to deputy clerks at Bedford Circuit Court, there’s hasn’t been an order regarding reopening jury trials yet. A decision on that is expected early in April.
Appomattox County, which sits in the 11th Judicial Circuit, held its first jury trial this side of the pandemic at the beginning of February.