This week the Chester County Justice Center prepared for the return of jury trials with a full scale exercise that tested plans to keep jurors safe while preserving the fairness of court proceedings.
About 40 volunteers from various county departments gathered outside the Chester County Justice Center Thursday morning, just as jurors would do if they were called to jury duty for a criminal or civil trial. It was the beginning of a four-part exercise based on planning by the Courts, the Department of Emergency Services, and the Health Department.
“Our goal was to ensure that the jury protocols we have carefully developed will work in real time. All while ensuring the safety of jurors under social distancing guidelines, and preserving the fairness of the jury selection process,” said Patricia Norwood-Foden, Court Administrator.
The first part of the exercise required mock jurors to enter the Justice Center lobby for the screening process currently in place for all other forms of court business. The COVID-19 screening consists of a comprehensive questionnaire and body temperature checks for each juror.
Next, the mock jurors headed to the jury assembly room, which formerly accommodated 130 people but is now restricted to 55. After the jurors checked in, they underwent orientation, received face shields and had easy access to hand sanitizing stations.
The mock jury selection process then began inside a courtroom, followed by the jury trial phase of the exercise overseen by Judge David Bortner, the administrative judge for the criminal division. Physical seating and social distancing were tested for jurors as well as courtroom participants including the presiding judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, witnesses, security and court reporter. Line of sight was tested for jurors and participants as they viewed courtroom evidence. The exercise also tested whether a court reporter would be able to hear witness testimony from behind protective plexiglass installed around the witness box.
Jury trials are slated to resume on August 3, 2020 in Chester County. The prohibition on indoor events and gatherings of more than 25 persons contained in the Governor’s July 15, 2020 Executive Order does not apply to the Judiciary or court functions. Once jury trials begin, those selected for jury trial will be provided with kits that include a face shield, mask, hand sanitizer and wipes.
“Courts, under the direction of President Judge Hall, have worked collaboratively with multiple departments to develop a comprehensive reopening plan,” said Mike Murphy, Emergency Services Director. “This exercise validated our plan to accommodate the number of people required for a jury trial while ensuring the health and safety of the jurors, visitors, and staff of the Justice Center.”