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After a year of COVID-19 restrictions, criminal trials are the final step in restoring Philly-area courthouses to full capacity

Courts across the region are planning to resume jury trials in the coming weeks.

The Justice Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice in Center City has started to resume criminal jury trials. Other courts in the area are following suit, a move that officials say marks the final push back to operations before the COVID-19 shutdowns.
The Justice Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice in Center City has started to resume criminal jury trials. Other courts in the area are following suit, a move that officials say marks the final push back to operations before the COVID-19 shutdowns.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

As coronavirus restrictions are being eased for social gatherings and restaurants amid soaring vaccination rates, courts across the region are beginning to take the final steps of their return to normalcy.

Jury trials in Philadelphia and its surrounding counties and South Jersey are being scheduled, and courthouses are making plans to return to full capacity after a year of mostly empty courtrooms. Court officials and advocates are quick to point out that the criminal justice system never fully closed — courthouses remained open for essential functions and hearings, staffed at limited capacity.

But the return of jurors has long been a benchmark for court operations post-COVID. And prosecutors and defense lawyers alike say they are eager to cut through the backlog of criminal cases paused during a year spent in lockdown.

The pace at which those trials are resuming varies by county, with some jurisdictions, including the city and Chester County, already seating jurors.

Philadelphia’s Criminal Justice Center resumed criminal trials for a brief, two-month period in late 2020, according to spokesperson Gabriel Roberts. Since March, both criminal and civil trials have resumed, and July 6 has been set as the day when all court personnel and court functions will be fully restored.

“We were statusing cases throughout the pandemic, to see if any cases were ready to settle or plead, or some other nontrial disposition,” Roberts said. “It was a way of checking in to see if things were ready to get done, and to the extent they were, we did them.”

» READ MORE: From March: "As COVID-19 continues to impact Philly’s criminal courts, some lawyers say a lack of vaccines is ‘life-threatening’"

In Chester County, trials also resumed in 2020, from May to November, before a cautionary pause around the winter holiday season. They’ve since resumed, and the county has essentially cut through most of its backlog, court administrator Patricia Norwood-Foden said in an interview.

“In Chester County, we’re in good shape,” she said. “And I think that’s because we’ve been able to get through our nontrial business during the pandemic.”

Norwood-Foden credited Chester County’s expedited schedule in part to its facilities: The county Criminal Justice Center is one of the largest in the region, and West Chester’s original, historic courthouse — currently housing a museum and some county offices — was borrowed as additional space for civil trials to allow for social distancing.

“What was also helpful was having our health department drilling what it would take to do a jury trial successfully,” she said. “We knew we could do it safely under the social distancing guidelines, and we had resources to do it.”

» READ MORE: From January: "Philly courts’ backlog leaves many jailed for months without a hearing"

The city’s other collar counties are working at an ambitious pace to get their own juries seated. In Doylestown, Bucks County officials have been steadily scheduling trials during the last few months, eyeing the county’s planned Tuesday resumption of proceedings.

Delaware County officials have done the same, and are contracting with a nearby community center to hold jury selection sessions starting the week of July 19, according to county Court Administrator Gerald Montella. Montella said that would allow the courts to bring in jury pools of 100 people, so judges could quickly select panels of 14 for trials scheduled to begin later that week.

Throughout South Jersey, in-person jury trials are set to resume June 15 for criminal cases, with defendants who have been in custody receiving the highest priority. Jury selection will begin in a virtual format and then move to a final in-person phase.

Most civil jury trials will continue to be conducted in a virtual format unless an assignment judge finds compelling circumstances to warrant an in-person trial, the New Jersey Supreme Court said in its order last month.

In every county, choosing which trials to prioritize has taken some effort. Older cases that were in progress when courts shuttered are competing for attention with newer arrests made during the pandemic.

In Montgomery County, District Attorney Kevin Steele and his staff spent the last few months performing “triage” on cases, working with defense lawyers and judges to get trials scheduled safely and in a timely manner.

A number of criminal matters have been resolved, when applicable, through diversionary programs including drug and mental health courts, which remained active during the pandemic, Steele said. Some defendants in other cases opted for bench trials, and others negotiated pleas with prosecutors.

“Some people we’ve spoken to in and out of the system have been under the perception that things were stopped or stalled, and that hasn’t been the case,” Steele said. “We’ve continued to work throughout this period of time, and we’ve worked to dispense justice in these cases.

“We’ve been successful in that in every respect, other than jury trials,” he said.

The biggest hurdle for any county has been murder cases, the majority of which require juries to be impaneled. Steele, like his counterparts elsewhere, has been filling the court’s calendar for the summer and fall with these cases, including the prosecution of Nicholas Forman, the Perkiomen Township man accused of killing his girlfriend in February 2020, set to begin Aug. 13.

“I’m optimistic we’ll be able to work through these cases and dispense justice in them,” Steele said. “We all look forward to seeing juries.”

Defense lawyers throughout the region have expressed the same hope.

John I. McMahon Jr., a Norristown-based lawyer who handles cases in Bucks and Montgomery Counties, said dealing with delays from COVID-19 has been frustrating. He’s taken issue with the extended time defendants have had to spend in jail, waiting for criminal proceedings to begin.

“Incarcerated defendants who have languished in prison month after month after month, presumed innocent, have greatly suffered, not being able to have their day in court,” he said. “And as someone whose duty is to zealously represent his client, that’s been a hard pill to swallow.”

Still, he understands how unusual the situation is, and says he’s confident that president judges throughout the region are doing what’s best for everyone.

“Going forward, there are very monumental challenges that exist with regard to the large backlog of cases,” he said. “Some of these plans are ambitious, and we’ll all see how they unfold.”