As many aspects of society take the first tentative steps toward resuming regular activity during the COVID-19 pandemic, Warren County may provide an early example of whether order will return to court.
The Kentucky Supreme Court issued an order near the end of last month allowing for the resumption of criminal jury trials beginning Aug. 1.
“Jury trials shall only resume if the trial judge determines in his or her discretion, after having considered local public health conditions and the health and safety requirements established by the Supreme Court, that it is advisable,” the order from the state’s high court said.
Trials for defendants currently in custody take priority under the conditions of the order, and civil trials will not resume until after Oct. 1.
A criminal trial is set to begin Wednesday in Warren Circuit Court, one of the first to take place in the state since the order from the Supreme Court.
Warren Circuit Judge Steve Wilson, who will preside over the trial, plans to adapt to the realities of the pandemic-driven environment while ensuring the trial proceeds.
While judges have the option to conduct jury orientation remotely through video conferencing technology, the trials themselves must take place in a court facility.
In Warren County, jury orientation for people beginning their jury duty this month was conducted last week in a staggered fashion, with three separate groups gathering at different times in the courtroom for orientation.
Before the pandemic, prior custom was to have the entire jury pool together for orientation.
“We’re doing that to maintain the physical and social distancing that’s required by the statute,” Wilson said.
The jury selection process for the upcoming trial will be carried out in the same way, with Wilson saying that the jury pool, from which 14 jurors will be selected to hear the case, will be separated into three groups that will each be questioned by the trial attorneys.
Wilson said social distancing requirements in the courtroom will mean about 25 potential jurors will be in each of the three groups for jury selection.
Instead of the jury box, the selected jurors will hear the case from the gallery where the public would typically be seated.
Masks will be required at all times; Wilson said the only people who can uncover their faces are a witness when they are testifying and a lawyer when they are questioning a witness.
The judge said officials at the justice center are working to ensure that the public will be able to view the trial through a live video feed outside the courtroom.
Wilson said he anticipates everyone involved will be able to adapt to the current environment.
“It’s going to be a different animal than we’ve had before, but if anything, given how we’ve had to change how we do motion hours and everything else in the last few months, we’ve learned a lot through this process,” Wilson said.
Warren County Commonwealth’s Attorney Chris Cohron has been leading grand jury proceedings in recent weeks, giving him some practice at managing a group of people in a courtroom setting in a world of masks and six-feet distance requirements.
“With being able to utilize some of the space in the justice center along with following the protocols instituted by the Supreme Court, the grand jury has worked very well,” Cohron said. “The grand jury members have been great to work with and very understanding of the importance of their work.”
Although Warren County is early to reopening its courtroom to jurors, it is not the first location to have hosted a jury trial during a pandemic.
A trial concluded last week in Kenton County and Cohron said he spoke with Kenton County Commonwealth’s Attorney Rob Sanders about it.
“Except for the unusual structure of jury selection, (Sanders) said it went off without an issue,” Cohron said. “With the physical layout of the courtroom here and the protocols in place, hopefully starting next week jury trials will go off without a hitch.”
Court facilities across the state have had to adapt to avoid becoming potential vectors for COVID-19.
The state Supreme Court issued a series of orders beginning in March that have guided how county justice centers can conduct court business.
Hearings have typically been conducted over video conferencing apps like Skype or Zoom, allowing for incarcerated defendants to appear remotely from jail for their court dates.
Circuit clerk’s offices had been mandated by the state Supreme Court to reduce by half the number of people working at the office on any given day, making for staggered work schedules and a slower process in ensuring paperwork related to court cases has been filed.
A more recent order has given circuit clerks more latitude in determining the appropriate number of employees who can safely work in-person.
James Rhorer, directing attorney for the Bowling Green office of the Department of Public Advocacy, said the pandemic has presented a number of challenges that have forced the attorneys in his office to adapt.
Following the directives from the Supreme Court will be important to ensure that trials can be held safely, Rhorer said.
“The right to a speedy (trial) is important for defendants, but there are going to be challenges for everybody involved, so everybody is going to have to work together to try to make sure a fair trial occurs and everyone stays safe,” Rhorer said about the resumption of jury trials.
Warren County Regional Jail had closed the facility to the public for months in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus, which also meant in-person meetings with jailed clients to discuss cases could not take place.
Visitors were allowed into the jail last month, and on-site visits by attorneys via appointment resumed July 13.
“The logistics are more challenging than they were before, but I will say the jail has done a great job in making every effort to make our clients available to us, considering the circumstances,” Rhorer said.