Trials resume in a changed world

The Marion County Courthouse is shown in this file photo. On Tuesday, the Marion County Commission approved a plan to buildout the empty fourth floor of the building for use as offices and a courtroom. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]

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Posted March 8, 2021 | By Carlos Medina, Ocala Gazette

The Marion County Courthouse is shown in this file photo. On Monday, the court resumed jury trials after nearly a year’s absence due to COVID-19 concerns. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]

Justice has always been blind. Now it’s also masked.

Jury trials started on Monday in Marion County after nearly a year hiatus with a spate of new rules in response to COVID-19.

More than 130 prospective jurors, all masked and socially distanced, gathered Monday for jury selection. Three trials were on tap, but only one, a DUI case, made it to trial. The others ended in plea deals.

“I was worried I was never going to see a jury again. I really was,” County Judge Sarah Ritterhoff Williams said as she waited for 18 prospective jurors to enter the courtroom.

In January, Ritterhoff Williams announced her retirement effective on May 14.

The most obvious difference on Monday was the ever-present facemask. Everyone: Judges, attorneys, defendants and jurors, wore masks.

The required attire caused some issues, including muffling the voices of prospective jurors. The court reporter asked that everyone speak up.

But a more telling issue came up when the defendant in the DUI case recognized one of the prospective jurors, but not vice versa. The judge allowed the defendant to pull down the mask and show his face. The prospective juror immediately recognized the defendant.

Otherwise, court procedure went on mostly as usual, with attorneys closely conferring with one another and their client. Jury trials remained off for months as officials developed safety protocols and waited for the number of cases in the county to slow. It could take years to get through the backlog of 22,000 civil and criminal cases pending in the county.

With the new social distancing rules, court officials had to get creative with space. To keep everyone six feet apart, the 18 jurors in the DUI case took up both the jury box and most of the gallery seating.

Down in the jury assembly room, where the jury pool waits before heading to a courtroom, capacity went from 300 to 117 because of spacing requirements. Empty courtrooms took the overflow.

Jeffery Fuller, a spokesman for the Fifth Judicial Circuit that includes Marion County, said they were easing into the new procedure.

“Normally, pre-March 2020, there would have been more than three trials set. Having a smaller number of trials set for today was intentional, so we could make sure everything went smoothly,” Fuller said, adding they were scheduling cases that only required six jurors.

Once empaneled, the six jurors and one alternate sit staggered, five in the jury box and two in front of the jury box.

The changes to spacing also affect jury deliberations. Instead of deliberating in jury rooms, the jury will take over the courtroom, where they can keep socially distanced. Court officials will turn off recording equipment during deliberation, and everyone else will leave.

In preparation, Ritterhoff Williams said she removed all law books from the courtroom and reminded attorneys to take all their material with them, including scrap paper. The courtroom will also serve as the jurors’ lunchroom.

The jury also will use two jury rooms when excused for breaks or during court discussions. Three jurors will go to one room and four to the other.

The new rules even affect snacks and beverages. Ritterhoff Williams told jurors they would have bottled water and prepackaged snacks.

“Normally, it’s coffee and doughnuts, but that’s a little too communal,” she said.

The court also will use a “pick and go” strategy for trials moving forward, Fuller said.

“Instead of picking a jury and telling them to come back on another day, you pick a jury and start the trial the same day,” he said.

On Monday, the DUI trial started minutes after jury selection ended.

Despite only having one trial, Fuller said the day was a success.

“We are excited to get started. Be it trials or pleadings. It makes the system work,” he said. “Most of the time there are pleas. It’s a whole lot better to take a sure thing than leave it up to chance to six jurors that you’ve never met before.”

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