NEW YORK — As New York continues to reopen and pandemic restrictions are slowly lifted, the sprawling federal and state court systems have lumbered back to life, transforming how they operate in order to safely bring people back into buildings and clear case backlogs while infection rates remain high.
Nowhere has the change been more visible than in jury trials.
In U.S. District Court in Manhattan, witnesses now testify from Plexiglas booths. Defendants communicate with socially distanced lawyers through telephone-style handsets. And jurors no longer sit in tight rows in an old-fashioned jury box. Instead, they are spaced apart on elevated platforms that reach toward the rear of the courtroom.
Rather than cramming into a tight conference room to deliberate or eat lunch, jurors now receive a separate courtroom in which to spread out. They, like other visitors, pass through rigorous health screenings to enter the court, and they await jury selection in assembly rooms in chairs spaced six feet apart.
“Our ability to get jurors to serve was dependent upon having an environment that was both safe and perceived as safe,” said Judge P. Kevin Castel, a member of an ad hoc committee of judges appointed to figure out how to carefully restart jury trials in federal courthouses in Manhattan and White Plains.
The task was not easy. The court suspended jury trials more than a year ago because of the pandemic, then restarted them in the fall and, about two months later, halted them again.
The court spent $1 million to reconfigure 11 courtrooms and to stock courthouses with sanitizer, gloves, masks and even antimicrobial pens, after consulting with experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and elsewhere, said Edward Friedland, the court’s senior executive.
With cases stalled and defendants languishing in jail, the goal was to grant them their right to a speedy trial and get the criminal justice system moving again.
“There is this thing called the Constitution that’s sitting out there,” said Judge Colleen McMahon, who recently stepped down as chief judge after nearly five years.
McMahon noted that the court had had no difficulty picking juries since restarting trials. Indeed, for some, jury duty may have been preferable to being quarantined at home.
Judge Loretta A. Preska, overseeing a recent trial in a wage lawsuit filed by former Manhattan noodle shop workers, recalled one juror appearing in a V-neck blouse with large ruffles around the neckline.
“When I admired it,” Preska recalled, “she smiled broadly and replied to the effect that she had been at home for nine months and was delighted to dress to come to court.”
The court decided that, generally speaking, criminal trials would be given precedence over civil cases, and jailed defendants would be tried before those free on bond, court officials said. The court has successfully held more than a dozen trials since restarting them in February.
In New York’s state court system, since jury trials restarted on March 22, roughly 200 have been resolved through verdicts, guilty pleas or settlements, a court spokesman said.
There have been some bumps in the road. As jury selection began in one civil case in Brooklyn Supreme Court, a plaintiff’s lawyer said he could not proceed while wearing a mask, claiming it was interfering with his breathing. He asked to wear a face shield instead.
Justice Lawrence Knipel, citing court rules statewide, denied the request and dismissed the case. “Masks must be worn in all courtrooms,” he said.
In revamping courtrooms, officials confronted issues that have not typically arisen in other settings.
The Manhattan federal court, for example, requires visitors to wear two face masks, or a single N95 or KN95 mask. But the Sixth Amendment’s confrontation clause says an accused person has the right to be confronted with the witnesses against him.
So did that mean witnesses had to remove their masks while testifying? In the end, the judges decided yes. But that raised a practical concern: how to protect judges and others who sit near the witness stand.
“It’s challenging because they have a unique set of needs in the courtroom,” said Amira Roess, a professor of global health and epidemiology at George Mason University, one of two experts there consulted by the court.
The other, Rainald Löhner, a professor of fluid dynamics, studied courtroom air currents by having a court employee sit on the witness stand and puff on an e-cigarette.
“You just see where the smoke goes,” Löhner explained.
The court eventually constructed a Plexiglas booth for witnesses, equipping it with a HEPA filter, which traps fine particles that can transmit the virus.
The court also acquired special telephone-style handsets engineered to amplify whispers to allow defendants and lawyers to communicate confidentially during trials while sitting farther apart.
“Everybody’s very impressed with what they have done with the courtrooms; they’ve made it as safe as humanly possible,” said David E. Patton, attorney-in-chief of Federal Defenders of New York, which represents thousands of indigent defendants in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
But Patton expressed concern that in some trials, anxious jurors could reach “quick decisions that might not be fully thought out because people are just stressed and worried about getting home.”
As it turned out, that did not happen in a four-day trial held this month in Brooklyn's federal court, said Christopher Wright, a lawyer for the defendant, a man charged with threatening to shoot his parole officer in the face.
In court, Wright said, everyone wore masks; jurors sat apart in the former spectator gallery; and witnesses testified from the now-vacant jury box while wearing clear face shields. The jury acquitted his client after more than three hours of deliberations, Wright said.
“I was apprehensive about defending someone during COVID for fear the jury would rush to a verdict to get out of there,” he said. “That was not the case, as the jury acted with the same deliberation as they would’ve in more normal times.”
The new world of COVID-era trials got a bigger test last month in Manhattan’s federal court in a three-week trial of two men charged with conspiracy to commit bank fraud.
The judge, Jed S. Rakoff, oversaw the selection of 12 regular jurors and four alternates to serve as backups — a routine step to ensure the jury remained at full strength. If a jury in a federal criminal trial falls below 12 members, a judge may have to declare a mistrial.
As the trial began, the pool of alternates was rapidly depleted. One alternate was excused on the second day after complaining of financial hardships. Two days later, Rakoff used the second alternate to replace Juror No. 8, who he said had tested positive for COVID-19.
Then, that same day, another juror, complaining that Juror No. 8 had not always properly socially distanced, asked to be dismissed, writing, “Your Honor, I feel incredibly uncomfortable with the situation.” Another alternate replaced her.
The judge had to use the fourth and last alternate a week later to replace a juror who said a student in her daughter’s school had tested positive.
“Just lending a little bit of excitement to the proceedings,” the judge quipped as the trial lurched forward with no alternates remaining.
But the patched-up jury ultimately made it to the finish line when the jury, after nearly six hours of deliberations over two days, returned guilty verdicts for both defendants.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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