Nevada County courts work to balance health concerns as jury trial set to start
The first jury trial to be held in Nevada County in months — that of Jerry Dean Helton, 30, on one felony count of attempted second-degree robbery — is set to start Tuesday.
But how will holding a jury trial work in the time of COVID-19?
Since mid-March, Nevada County Superior Court has been under regulations intended to minimize court proceedings. Trials were postponed and many hearings were rescheduled as well. The hearings that still occurred were contained to just one or two courtrooms, with many defendants appearing via video or telephone.
But more stringent safety precautions were put in place as of June 1, as more cases were being scheduled for hearings,
“We have taken several precautions that apply generally throughout the courthouse, including requiring social distancing and the wearing of face coverings,” said Court Executive Officer Jason Galkin. “Seating and occupancy in courtrooms is restricted to ensure adequate distancing. Seating in hallways has been removed to facilitate further social distancing.”
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That 6-foot spacing, enforced by taping off many seats, means the number of people allowed inside a courtroom will be severely limited. And those limitations will be immediately tested during jury selection, as a typical jury pool can mean dozens of people crammed into the courtroom during a lengthy questioning process.
“We have started using a multi-stage juror screening process,” Galkin said. “This process allows for a significant portion of jurors to be screened with no or limited contact.”
Questionnaires were provided to prospective jurors to facilitate a screening process that would normally take place within the courthouse, Galkin explained. That way, the number of potential jurors who will need to physically appear on any given trial is significantly reduced.
After that initial screening, subgroups of prospective jurors will be scheduled in staggered times throughout the day to minimize foot traffic and maintain social distancing.
The Tuesday trial is the first attempt at using this new process, Galkin said.
“The judge in this case (Judge Robert Tice-Raskin) has really thought through carefully how to conduct the trial in a way that is safe for everyone involved,” said Assistant District Attorney Chris Walsh, adding the judge and attorneys have been working to weed out any dismissals for hardship or other cause ahead of time.
“We believe this process should yield an effective jury pool while simultaneously taking significant measures to address public safety,” Galkin said.
There are concerns with those limitations, Walsh acknowledged.
“Trials are public by law,” he said, noting that some courts in the state are livestreaming trials to ensure the public has a way to watch the proceedings.
Nevada County Public Defender Keri Klein expressed some reservations, noting, “This is a new challenge and no one has all of the answers.” She cited the need to guarantee a defendant’s right to a speedy trial.
“My office is trying to keep matters moving forward so clients, who are presumed innocent, do not sit indefinitely in jail, with their constitutionally guaranteed speedy trial and hearing rights continually extended via orders that may or may not withstand the test of time,” she said.
Klein said that while she questions some of the steps being taken, she understands they are meant to assure the health and safety of courthouse staff.
“Unfortunately, an attorney-client relationship is not conducive to physical distancing,” she said. “Public defenders need to be able to speak confidentially with our clients before, during and after court. That may mean that we need to sit in close quarters and whisper to each other while we are in court. I certainly hope that jurors don’t hold that inability to physically distance against our clients.”
Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at email@example.com.
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