COVID-19 precautions in the courtrooms: changes during the pandemic

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) — Lawyers are trying to navigate how to practice social distancing in the courtrooms.

The pandemic has some wondering how jury trials will be conducted if the COVID-19 pandemic continues or gets worse. Courts have made many changes and implemented new requirements in the courtrooms to comply with health safety regulations. That also poses the question of how to operate as the COVID-19 stretches on longer than it already has.

The Champaign County courtrooms look much different than before the pandemic started. Plexiglass encloses the witness box, the jury box was reconstructed to create more room for social distancing, and there’s a limit on the number of spectators allowed.

Lawyers are dealing with things they never had to previously. Kennith Blan is a civil lawyer based in Danville. He says, “This is a very difficult time to convince people to come serve on juries.” Jury summons have changed, some having the option to do orientation training online to limit exposure. But that also made Blan wonder how the pandemic may affect how jury trials are conducted further on into the pandemic.

Blan says, “We’re asking the question among ourselves, what about doing our trials virtually? We’re trying to find out what affect it would have on the perspective jury pool.” He wonders whether in-person jury trials would continue, or if it could be possible to do them virtually online.

While that might be possible in civil cases, in criminal cases the accused have a constitutional right to a jury by their peers. Macon County States Attorney Jay Scott says virtual options would complicate the integrity of criminal trials. “A defendant in a criminal case has the right to confront the witnesses and make them come before them and give their testimony so I don’t think you could do that in a criminal case.”

From his perspective this wouldn’t work for criminal cases specifically. “Logistically I think it would be a nightmare,” says Scott. Seeing someone’s facial expressions and body language has a significant impact on how juries make decisions. “When we’re picking a jury we like to look at the facial expressions of the jurors so we feel at a handicap too because you can’t tell if they’re smiling or frowning or the look on their face.”

Macon County has had only one criminal trial since the pandemic started, practicing social distancing in the courtroom. But Scott says during the trial, he noticed a complication. “In our trial the defendant chose to wear a mask the entire time. One of the jurors commented to one of the security officers that they couldn’t see their facial expressions. They tune into things like that.”

Right now in Illinois there is no provision to do virtual trials.

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