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Plans for return to jury trials in works

6 feet of spacing raises challenge by Bill Bowden | April 11, 2021 at 3:56 a.m.
court gavel

When state-court jury trials resume in Arkansas next month, some venue-related creativity will be employed to accommodate covid-19 health guidelines.

In Pulaski County, the arts and crafts building at the Arkansas State Fairgrounds will be used for some jury trials.

In Faulkner County, one judge plans to hold juror orientation at the Conway Expo and Event Center.

And in Baxter County, jury selection may be held at the fairgrounds in Mountain Home.

"The problem is that nothing like this has ever happened before," said Faulkner County Circuit Judge Charles E. Clawson. "We're learning as we go with an eye toward safety but also with an eye toward judicial efficiency."

Under an Arkansas Supreme Court per curiam order issued Thursday, trials can resume at state courts May 1. Trials haven't been held in most Arkansas circuit courts since the pandemic began a year ago.

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But state Health Department coronavirus guidelines must be followed in the courtrooms, which means wearing masks and keeping people 6 feet apart.

That can be difficult for 12 people seated in a jury box.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Leon Johnson said he can space things out in his courtroom so that everybody is 6 feet apart, but there will be less room for spectators.

Johnson, who is the administrative judge for the 6th Judicial Circuit, said there are 17 judges in the circuit's two counties, Pulaski and Perry.

CROWDS OF PEOPLE

When trials are going on, the hallways are often clogged with people -- lawyers, clients, family members and spectators.

To keep things from getting too crowded in the Pulaski County Courthouse, Johnson said some trials and jury selections are planned for the arts and crafts building at the Arkansas State Fairgrounds.

They're looking at other alternative locations for trials, possibly courtrooms at the William H. Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

"Every district is probably doing things differently," Johnson said. "It's new to everybody, the things we're trying to do."

Johnson said court officials may use communication devices that will allow attorneys to have conferences with the judge, court reporter and opposing attorneys without approaching the bench and without the jury being able to hear them.

"We haven't had a trial in over a year, since last March," Johnson said.

He has three days a week scheduled for jury trials, up to five per day, but that could change.

"Some end up pleading," Johnson said. "Some get continued because of the witnesses or whatever."

"I'm not planning any trips right now. We have people in jail we need to take care of. They've been sitting there for a while."

Johnson said he doesn't know how difficult the jury selection process will be.

"You may have people who may not want to come up because people may not have had their [covid vaccine] shots, and you have to respect that," he said.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Barry Sims said he has a backlog of about 15 cases that need to go to trial.

"We need to get them tried as soon as possible," Sims said. "Our plan at least in my court is to get the ones that need to be tried the most, like victims under the age of 14 and cases with speedy-trial problems."

He compared it to triage in the medical profession -- the sorting of patients based on the urgency of their need for care.

Sims said all preliminary hearings took place via Zoom, but not the trials.

"Zoom has saved us," Sims said. "If we didn't have Zoom, we would be in bad shape."

Sims said he doesn't envision the 6th Circuit holding Saturday or night court, beyond a trial that started that morning or a previous day running into the evening.

"You've got to remember how many people are involved here," he said. "It's more trouble and work than you would think."

Sims said he normally sees 100 people on Mondays for purposes other than trials -- things like taking pleas, doing bond hearings and plea arraignments.

Tuesdays and Wednesday are his normal trial days, but he said that might have to be extended to include Thursdays and Fridays.

"We just can't figure out how to speed it along other than just calendar it differently," he said.

FINDING SPACE

Clawson said Faulkner County Circuit Judge Troy Braswell plans to use the Conway Expo Center for juror orientation, which can involve hundreds of people throughout the day.

He said orientation normally lasts about an hour and a half, and includes watching a film. Afterward, jurors go home and check later to see if they're needed for jury duty.

Clawson said he has juror orientation scheduled for May 3 in the Faulkner County Courthouse and four jury trials scheduled for May 4.

He said he has 50 jury trials scheduled for May. Some defendants will enter pleas instead of going to trail, and some cases will be postponed for various reasons. Clawson said the 20th Circuit has two other criminal divisions besides his. The circuit includes Faulkner, Searcy and Van Buren counties.

"We're taking certain precautions, but we have to get this done," he said. "We have several defendants who have been awaiting trial for several months."

The caseload could be onerous, particularly for public defenders, who represent many of the criminal clients, Clawson said.

"They're human, and jury trials are very taxing on people," he said.

Whittling away at the backlog will be hard work for everyone in the state court system, Clawson said.

"It's going to be incredibly difficult for us in the next probably six to nine months to be able to deal with the backlog and trials being set," he said. "I have no doubt that we will figure this process out. My concern is the backlog we have and how long it will take to get all the cases tried."

Clawson said it will probably be a year before things are back to normal in the 20th Circuit court.

He said he's not going to hold Saturday court, but he can see some trials running into the evening hours during the week.

Circuit Judge John Putman said May 10 will be the first trial week in Baxter County, and he has 135 cases set for jury trial beginning that week. Usually, he has about 15 at the beginning of the week.

Putman said there are 10 or 11 murder trials pending right now, just in Baxter County.

"I haven't been able to try a jury trial since February," he said. "I've got people who have been in jail for a long, long time. We've got to try those cases."

Of course, many of them will enter pleas instead of going to trial or their cases will be postponed.

Putman said there are four courtrooms in the 14th Judicial Circuit, and only one of them is "marginal" in size. The circuit includes Baxter, Boone, Marion and Newton counties.

Jury selection could draw about 80 people. Putman said he'll pick an alternative location for that, possibly the Baxter County Fairgrounds.

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