The Virginia Supreme Court has approved the 10th Judicial Circuit’s plan to restart jury trials that have been on hold nearly all year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 10th Judicial Circuit spans eight counties including Halifax County.
In developing this plan, the chief judge reached out and consulted with fellow judges, clerks, bailiffs, sheriffs, county officials, attorneys, health experts and cleaning professionals.
Halifax’s court proceedings are in temporary quarters in the space currently used for board of supervisor’s meetings in the Mary Bethune Office Complex, and they plan to spread out chairs in three or four rows in front of the judge, facing the witness box and counsel tables.
No one will be closer than social distance requirements. Jurors will assemble and voir dire will take place in the courtroom. Jury deliberations will take place within the courtroom. Sidebars will take place in a conference room on the same floor as the board of supervisors room.
Using technology, they will broadcast proceedings to an overflow room set up in the gymnasium.
All safety rules, including social distancing and the wearing of face coverings, will be complied with during all phases of the trial.
Face masks shall be required upon entry into the courthouse and when in non-courtroom spaces of the courthouse. Face masks will be made available for those who do not have their own. Any prospective juror who refuses, for whatever reason, to wear a face mask shall be excused and be deferred to another term of court.
While on the witness stand, a witness may take down a face covering to testify, with permission of the court.
A criminal defendant may also be asked to remove his or her face covering during proceedings on the stand.
If face coverings impair the ability of a lawyer and his or her client to communicate at counsel table, the court will encourage the use of alternate methods of communication such as note-writing, texting between devices (if allowed in with permission of the court). If those methods are not available or sufficient, the court will permit counsel whatever recesses are necessary for the purpose of facilitating private communication. However, the court expects counsel to maintain social distancing among any co-counsel and client at all times.
If a mask is removed by anyone for any reason, the distance between the unmasked person and all others shall be at least 10 feet, as recommended by the Virginia Department of Health.
Everyone entering the courthouse also will answer questions from the bailiffs regarding possible exposure to COVID-19. Bailiffs also will check temperatures of those entering the courthouse.
If anyone answers yes to any of the questionaire by the bailiffs or has a temperature of 100.4 F or above, he or she will not be allowed into the courthouse.
If a necessary party or a witness is denied entry, a bailiff shall immediately notify the court. In consultation with attorneys, the court shall make appropriate accommodations for the remote appearance of the party or witness by way of Polycom, WebEx or other reliable technology.
Only those with “legitimate business” shall be admitted entry, and victims, the public and the press have right to access to all trials, according to the approved plan.
If it is determined by the presiding judge that sufficient space is available for spectators, the press, and advocacy groups, they will be permitted entry into the courtroom, as space allows taking into account required social distancing. Designated areas will be marked for the public and seats will be marked to provide proper social distancing, allowing, however, members of the same household to be seated together.
Jurisdictions will make use of technology available and overflow spaces to provide remote access to the courtroom. Prior to entry into the courthouse, each person must provide his or her name, phone number, purpose for visit and time of entry.
Hand sanitizing stations also will be placed throughout the courthouse, and signage pertaining to proper social distancing, the wearing of face masks and proper hand hygiene shall be posted throughout the building.
If throughout a trial a participant develops symptoms of COVID-19 or has tested positive for COVID-19, the presiding judge, clerk and attorneys will be notified immediately as well as those who may have been exposed. He or she will be urged to contact their health care provider or Virginia Department of Health for further instructions.
Furthermore, all affected areas will be sealed for 24 hours and will be properly cleaned and sanitized.