Come Monday at some county courthouses across the region, jurors will return after a months-long absence that stalled trials and put key facets of the criminal justice system on hold.
In Bucks and Chester Counties, civil jury trials are expected to resume, staggered to accommodate social distancing requirements. Chester County’s plan is especially ambitious: Criminal trials are also set to begin Monday after weeks of test runs conducted with mock jurors in West Chester.
Other counties aren’t moving as quickly to return to normal. But in the last few weeks, all have begun conducting more hearings and other court business, loosening restrictions dictated by lockdown orders signed in the spring at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
Criminal proceedings in the time of COVID-19 look a bit different. Defense attorneys and prosecutors address judges from behind face masks, sometimes separated by a plastic-glass divider. Defendants, if not incarcerated, stand with their lawyers. Otherwise, the action is relayed through a webcam, fed into a holding cell in the jail.
Patrick Kurtas, the president of the Montgomery County Bar Association, said the adoption of technology, particularly video conferencing for defendants who are incarcerated in county jails, has been the biggest adjustment.
“I’ve considered it from the perspective of, can you get the job done efficiently, if not of the highest caliber,” he said. “And none of my clients have been reluctant in any way to use video, or questioning if they’re getting a fair shake. In some instances, the client was more interested to do it this way.”
Court officials in New Jersey also are moving to resume jury trials, set to begin in September in three judicial districts: Bergen County, Atlantic and Cape May Counties, and Gloucester, Cumberland, and Salem Counties. Jurors will be screened first with a virtual survey, then in person through jury pool screening at the courthouse.
Montgomery and Delaware Counties have set no firm dates for when trials will resume. Judges in both counties have been conducting plea and sentencing hearings in the county courthouses since the beginning of June, and Family Court proceedings have also been held there.
“There was significant consideration and analysis of how we can do things and move cases,” Kurtas said. “They’ve done a good job at it, and they’re getting better every day, and with that additional knowledge and experience, over time, I believe this process is sustainable.”
Lawyers across the region see cause for optimism, as video hearings have provided unprecedented flexibility.
Wana Saadzoi, a lawyer who practices in Montgomery, Delaware, and Chester Counties, said she has been amazed to see the adoption of technology in Pennsylvania courtrooms — normally some of the strictest in the country when it comes to cameras and recording.
She recently participated in a Zoom probation violation hearing for Montgomery County, while standing in the hallway of the Delaware County courthouse between hearings. That never would have been possible five months ago.
“Where the stakeholders have the best working relationships seem to be the ones that are surviving this hyper-event,” she said. “I’m curious if it’s going to force each county into new habits that will inevitably result in what we would consider criminal justice reform.”
The suburban counties have also resumed holding preliminary hearings through the district court system.
Local judges have been operating on rotating schedules, processing new arrests as they happen and steadily working through older cases involving defendants who didn’t have a chance to appear before them when the pandemic lockdown began.
District Judge Michael Gallagher, president of the Bucks County District Judge Association, said all parties, from prosecutors to sheriff’s deputies, are “working together, realizing these are trying times.”
The local courts kept busy, even in the early stages of the restrictions. Gallagher said more and more defendants are opting to pay tickets and other fees online, cutting down on face-to-face contact with clerks.
“Once lawyers started realizing how we were doing it, it worked quite well,” he said. “Things are moving along, and though I wouldn’t say we’re back to normal, there haven’t been any major issues.”
Chester County’s resumption of both criminal and civil jury trials will be a benchmark for the region, to see how sustainable these proceedings can be under social distancing.
Patricia Norwood-Fodden, the county court administrator, said the two dry runs conducted in July went smoothly, aided by input from the county fire marshal, Sheriff’s Office, and district attorney.
For safety, civil trials will be held in the county’s historic courthouse, built in 1846 and currently serving as a museum. And if people are uncomfortable with the thought of joining a jury pool, they are given the ability to opt out early on, Norwood-Fodden said.
The plans don’t bother Lou Busico, a veteran criminal-defense attorney who has spent the last few months circulating among courtrooms in the suburbs. Busico noted that the criminal justice system, like the rest of society, “was thrust into a horrible and unknown situation,” and faced a difficult balancing act between constitutional rights and public health.
“There is no perfect way to achieve such a balance; this resulted in some individuals being released from prison when they otherwise would not have and some individuals staying in prison longer than they should have before receiving their day in court,” Busico said. “From the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on down, I believe everyone in the court system did the best they could.
“Hopefully, this progress will continue, because I’m sick and tired of saying the words ‘not guilty’ through this damn mask,” he added.