Jury duty during pandemic? Many decline, forcing trials to be delayed
HARTFORD, Conn.— Jury duty notices have set Nicholas Philbrook’s home on edge with worries about him contracting the coronavirus and passing it on to his father-in-law, a cancer survivor with diabetes in his mid70s who is at higher risk of developing serious complications from COVID-19.
Philbrook and his wife, Heather Schmidt, of Camarillo, Calif., have been trying to convince court officials that he should be excused from jury duty because her father lives with them. But court officials told him that is not a valid reason and he must appear in court early next month.
“My main concern is you still have to go into a building, you still have to be around a set number of people,” said Philbrook,
39, a marketing company editor. “In an enclosed space, how safe are you?”
People across the country have similar concerns amid resurgences of the coronavirus, a fact that has derailed plans to resume jury trials in many courthouses for the first time since the pandemic started.
Within the past month, courts in Hartford, Conn.; SanDiego; and Norfolk have had to delay jury selection for trials because too few people responded to jury duty summonses. The nonresponse rates are much higher now than they were before the pandemic, court officials say.
Judges in New York City, Indiana, Colorado and Missouri declared mistrials recently because people connected to the trials either tested positive for the virus or had symptoms.
“Many courts have been responsive to jurors who have said that they’re not comfortable with coming to court and doing jury duty and therefore offering deferrals simply because of concerns over COVID,” said Bill Raftery, a senior analyst with the National Center for State Courts.
Also this month, state court systems in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey and courts in Denver were among those to suspend all jury trials because of rising virus rates.
On Friday, federal officials announced that about two dozen U.S. district courts across the county have suspended jury trials and grand jury proceedings because of virus outbreaks and too few people showing up for jury duty.
Courts are under pressure to resume trials because of the case backlogs piling up during the pandemic.
A few courts have held trials in person and by videoconference. Although videoconferences may appear to be the best bet, many criminal defense lawyers
oppose them because it’s harder to determine witness credibility and to see if jurors are paying attention, said Christopher Adams, a lawyer in Charleston, S.C., and president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
“For almost everybody, there is no compelling need for trials to go forward during the pandemic,” he said, adding that most courts are not holding jury trials at the moment.
Adams said another concern is how representative juries would be if trials went ahead — the virus’s impact and the level of concern about it across different demographics, such as Black, Latino and elderly populations that are dying at higher rates, could affect who feels safe to serve jury duty.
“What we can’t allow is to have trials where there’s not a fair cross section of the community represented,” he said.
But many criminal defense lawyers are pointing to amajor issue with not holding trials
— defendantswho are detained while awaiting trial. Although jails and prisons across the country have released thousands of low-risk inmates because of concerns about the virus, many people remain locked up in pretrial detention.
In Norfolk, efforts to resume jury trials during the pandemic stalled recently because roughly nine out of 10 possible jurors weren’t showing up in court, The Virginian-Pilot reported.
Failure to report to jury duty is a crime in most places. Punishment can include fines and, in some cases, short jail sentences. Officials in some court systems have said they were considering increasing enforcement to improve response rates.