Public health officials have signed off on a detailed plan allowing jury trials to start in Teton County District Court during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 24-page operating plan has been in the works for months and covers everything from how potential jurors will enter, exit and move through the courthouse to improved air ventilation to disinfecting the witness stand between testimony.
“We are learning more and more about this virus, and evidence shows that if appropriate precautions are taken — such as physical distancing, masks and sanitization — essential group activities like jury trials can operate safely,” Dr. Travis Riddell told the News&Guide on Monday. “I have personally reviewed the court’s plan, and it’s a good one.”
Riddell, the county health officer, signed the court’s plan last week.
That approval was a prerequisite to any jury trial occurring, Judge Timothy Day said.
But ongoing evaluations of COVID-19 cases and resources in Teton County are also part of the plan.
“We are doing everything possible to keep our citizens safe, while balancing that against the constitutional right to a speedy jury trial,” Day said.
There hasn’t been a criminal jury trial in Day’s courtroom in over half a year, largely due to the pandemic.
Jury selection normally requires dozens of people to sit shoulder to shoulder in the crowded courtroom, a problematic setting since health experts say the virus is spread through close contact in confined spaces.
The trial plan gives a few options for jury selection: either by using the Center for the Arts auditorium, which would provide the square footage to spread out, or by selecting a jury in panels of 14 to 18 people at a time in the district courtroom.
Part of the trial plan requires all jurors and officers of the court to wear masks at all times. The court even went as far as removing benches in the district courtroom and will use “cushioned jury chairs” so jurors can stay spaced apart.
“Jurors will be seated in the gallery at pre-marked locations,” the plan states. “The same seats will be used every day and a seating chart will be kept by the court for contact tracing purposes.”
In the process of finding a jury pool, supplemental juror questionnaires will be sent to prospective jurors that will include an optional health screening, a case specific questionnaire and questions about remote availability.
The courts have been conducting hearings online using Microsoft Teams since March, and the trial plan states that software will still be used so the public, press and other interested parties can tune in remotely, to avoid crowding the courtroom.
The health questionnaire aims to try to exclude anyone who’s in a higher risk category.
To make the courtroom safer, aside from distancing, the court worked with the Teton County Facilities Department to modify the courthouse ventilation systems.
“Research indicates that proper air flow can help limit the spread of COVID-19,” the plan states. “Ventilation rates are currently operating with a 100% input of outside air. The exchange rate in the District Courtroom is an 85% exchange with outside air per hour. The filtration system uses filters that capture 95% of particles small enough to carry the COVID-19 virus.”
Sneeze guards were also installed at the witness stand.
Jurors will have their own restrooms separate from the public, the plan states. And they’ll take breaks and deliberate in the Circuit Courtroom rather than the usual jury room, which is much smaller than the courtroom.
Jurors will also be assigned iPads “to limit contact with paper and to facilitate better viewing of exhibits while jurors are spaced throughout the courtroom.”
If someone becomes symptomatic or sick during the trial, the person will be isolated in the jury room and provided a surgical mask to place over their cloth face covering, the plan states.
“Emergency personnel, family or other assistance shall be contacted,” it states. “Public Health shall be notified and the courtroom shall be disinfected in accordance with CDC guidance.”
Jurors will be told to contact the Clerk of District Court if they become sick outside trial hours or come into contact with a confirmed positive case of COVID-19.
The court has the ability to do a trial online. It also will consider doing a hybrid approach for the right cases.
“Courts around the country are also considering conducting hybrid proceedings such as conducting voir dire remotely for jury selection, while conducting the rest of trial in person,” the plan states. Voir dire means examining potential jurors.
It says courts in King County, Washington have been conducting jury selection remotely since August.
The next criminal jury trial scheduled to take place is set to start Nov. 2. Attorneys involved in the burglary and domestic violence case against Michael Lynch expressed concern about masks, both because they make it hard to understand each other and hard to read facial expressions.
“I do have some masks ordered that have the clear part over the mouth,” Day said Tuesday morning in a hearing.
Even so, attorney Elisabeth Trefonas asked the court to continue the trial, noting that she’s had 11 different clients test positive for COVID-19, and if she’d had to share a counsel table with them she would likely have been exposed.
“And this defendant is coming from out of state,” she said, referring to Lynch, who’s been on pretrial release in Colorado. “I don’t understand why the court would push this through with all the things that are going on.”
Prosecutors didn’t object to a continuance, and Day took the matter under advisement.
The court’s full trial plan is available on the Wyoming Supreme Court’s website.