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Circuit judges figuring out ways to resume defendant’s ‘day in court’

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Jury trials, not allowed since mid-March in West Virginia because of the pandemic, can restart Monday but it still may be a few weeks before most circuits are ready.

Putnam County Circuit Judge Phillip Stowers

West Virginia Judicial Association President Phillip Stowers, a Putnam County circuit judge, told MetroNews he’s recently spoken with every circuit judge in the state and had the conversation on how to restart criminal and civil trials and preparations that are being made.

“We asked every judge to look at their courtroom to see if they can effectively handle a civil trial, which would have only six jurors, maybe an alternate, and how successful that would be, and then examine the courtroom for a criminal case,” Stowers said.

Criminal juries usually number up to 14, including 12 jurors and two alternates.

Some circuits began the adjustments last week with grand juries. Stowers said circuit clerks and circuit judges were able to use larger courtrooms to spread out grand jury members. He said larger areas will likely have to be used for trials. He said some counties may have to go to split sessions for jury selection in order to social distance.

The state Supreme Court came out with a guidance document back on Friday to assist circuit judges and county circuit clerks working on the resumption of trials.

“All trial participants will be required to wear masks or face-coverings in courtrooms and related facilities,” the document said in part. “Social distancing will also be strictly enforced. Those with COVID-19 symptoms or those with suspected contact with COVID-19 will not permitted to enter judicial buildings.”

Stowers has been working with a subcommittee through the Supreme Court to prepare for the resumption of trials. He said potential jurors need to be able to expect that “all reasonable precautions have been taken to protect their health in this.”

Before there was a COVID-19 pandemic, circuit judges routinely receive requests from potential jurors who want to be excused for jury duty. Stowers expects some of those requests now to be linked to the pandemic. He said judges will handle them on a case-by-case basis.

“They (the potential jurors) need to be ready and prepared to talk about what risk factors they may have, whether that’s age or other medical issues, or whether they’re taking care of a sick parent at home that’s elderly. The facts we all see on TV and the things that make sense with science–those are the things the judges are going to look for,” Stowers said.

According to the guidance document, circuit judges can excuse health care workers that are assigned to COVID-19 patients and those potential jurors who have traveled outside the state in recent weeks who have yet to satisfy a 14-day quarantine.

“All such exceptions to jury service must be approved on a case by case basis by the judge presiding over the trial,” the document said.

Stowers said the court system needs to learn to live with COVID-19 and part of that adjustment must include civil and criminal trials in front of juries.

“This isn’t going to go away magically, there are a lot of moving parts,” he said. “We really need to work out a way to be able to not keep businesses tied up, not keep people’s property disputes going on needlessly without resolution and most importantly we gotta protect the constitutional rights of folks who are incarcerated and have a right to a trial.”

Stowers said circuit judges have to figure out a way to move forward.

“We have to use commonsense and do our constitutional duties,” he said. “Folks who are held in detention, who have lost every civil right but the fact to a fair trial and a hearing by the court, they deserve a day in court and we just can’t kick that any further.”

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