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How Arkansas courts are planning to resume trials safely next month

April 13, 2021 at 12:26 p.m.
court gavel

This story is a part of The Article, your guide to Arkansas news and culture, presented by the Democrat-Gazette. Sign up for The Article's twice-weekly newsletter here or to see stories that have appeared in past newsletters, go here.

Citing Arkansas' coronavirus vaccination efforts and a decline in newly identified infections, the Arkansas Supreme Court announced last week that jury trials in state courts will be allowed to resume next month.

However, judges say maintaining social distance during jury selection will require creative solutions.

How long have trials been suspended?

Jury trials have been on hold in Arkansas' state courts since Nov. 20, and they were also suspended for a few months last spring when the pandemic began.

Many courts have had no trials since the pandemic began.

How much of a backlog is there?

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

Faulkner County Circuit Judge Charles E. Clawson has 50 jury trials scheduled for May, though some defendants will inevitably take a plea deal and some cases will be delayed.

Still, he said it will probably be a year before things are back to normal in the court.

Circuit Judge John Putman said May 10 will be the first trial week in Baxter County, and though some will not end up going to trial then or at all, he has 135 cases set for jury trial beginning that week. Usually, he has about 15 at the beginning of the week.

How will courts ensure safety for all parties in court?

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 when dozens of people must appear for jury selection or when the chosen 12 people are seated in a jury box.

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

In Faulkner County, there are 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.

During the trials, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Leon 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.

Read more from reporter Bill Bowden about how the pandemic has affected trials and what will be different when they resume next month.

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