Expect different courtroom arrangements when criminal jury trials resume in city

Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice

The Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice in Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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After a nearly six-month hiatus, criminal jury trials are scheduled to resume Sept. 8 at the Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice.

They’re going to look a little different.

Proceedings will unfold in person, but everyone — judges, jurors, attorneys, witnesses and defendants — will be required to wear masks inside the courtroom and courthouse.

Witnesses will testify on the stand, but a Plexiglas divider will separate them from the prosecutors and defense attorneys questioning them.

Instead of sitting in the jury box, jurors will listen to the trial from the gallery in the back of the room to maintain social distancing, meaning there will be times when attorneys will have their backs to jurors or the judge presiding over the case.

“We’re concerned about safety more than anything else,” said Common Pleas Court Judge Leon Tucker, who supervises the criminal trial division of the First Judicial District.

Criminal jury trials will also take longer to conduct — starting with jury selection.

Each day, the pool of potential jurors will be divided into two rooms for voir dire, the process during which jurors are considered for a panel.

Then, using a combination of Zoom and a series of monitors in those rooms, a judge will run through an initial questionnaire with jurors. People will respond by raising numbered cards.

“A judge will be in a separate courtroom asking the questions. The cards will be raised, and we will report back to the judge what prospective jurors are having an issue with that question,” said Patrick Martin, director of jury operations.

After that process is complete, jurors will be sent — one by one — to the courtroom to be individually questioned by the judge and the attorneys on the case.

Potential jurors will spend less time moving through the courthouse, but the selection process will take more time.

These cases are also expected to take longer because more time will be needed to call people to the witness stand, in part because having them wait in the hallway outside the courtroom may not be an option because of social distancing protocols, Tucker said.

Instead, witnesses may have to wait somewhere completely outside the courthouse, including their attorneys’ law offices if they’re close by.

Overall, there will also be fewer courtrooms hearing criminal trials.

Before the pandemic, there were 34 judges conducting criminal trials inside the Stout Center. And on any given day, three-quarters of them were actively presiding over cases.

Starting next month, there will be just four courtrooms designated for criminal jury trials — two on the fifth floor and two on the sixth floor. Another two courtrooms will be used for bench trials — trials decided by a judge instead of a jury.

“It’s going to be a slower pace, and we’ll feel our way,” Tucker said. “As we move forward, if we can bump it up a notch or two, we’ll do that. If we have to slow it down, we’ll do that too.”

“We gotta start somewhere.”

Chief Defender Keir Bradford-Grey agrees, especially in the interest of preserving the due process rights of defendants, a number of whom have been waiting for their day in court from a city jail cell.

“If we don’t start trying things and trying to figure it out, we’ll never get to where we need to be so that people can have their speedy trial,” said Bradford-Grey, who leads the Defender Association of Philadelphia.

And while she thinks the plan has promise, she is concerned that some pieces of it could prove to be problematic, including the jury selection process.

A spokesperson for the First Judicial District could not provide a figure for the number of criminal jury trials that were put on hold as a result of the pandemic.

“Who will show up for jury duty during this pandemic? What demographic will we get?” asked Bradford-Grey.

COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Black residents in the city, especially in terms of virus-related deaths. To Bradford-Grey, that could easily translate to fewer Black residents reporting for jury duty, potentially hampering the ability to put together panels that accurately reflect the city’s population.

Bradford-Grey said having everyone in face masks could also make it challenging for lawyers to get an accurate read on jurors during the selection process, and once a criminal trial is underway.

“This is a human experience. So as you’re telling a story to someone, you’re judging how they’re receiving that story,” she said. “That’s something that could be lost.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said the office will “continue to work with the courts, law enforcement, and the defense bar on a reopening strategy that appropriately prioritizes public safety from a pandemic, public safety from crime, and our sworn oath to seek justice regardless of challenges.”

The public and the press will continue to have access to all criminal trials but only virtually, via Zoom after requesting access from the courts.

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