HENDERSON — Jury trials have resumed in Vance County for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. Now, court officials just need to find some jurors.
Anticipating that the job would be more difficult than usual, Clerk of Court Henry Gupton’s office for an upcoming session of Superior Court has issued 160 jury summonses, when before the pandemic’s arrival last spring it normally would’ve issued less than 100.
That’s because across three or four planned Superior Court sessions this spring, more than 200 people have failed to respond to their summons.
“I don’t know if they’re still afraid of COVID or what’s going on,” Gupton said, adding that expansion of summons numbers is about trying “to get more people” in the pool for upcoming trials.
He added that the clerk’s office includes in a summons a two-page questionnaire with COVID-screening questions, and a letter from Senior Resident Superior Court Judge John Dunlow explaining the precautions officials are taking at the courthouse to reduce the chances of someone being exposed to the coronavirus.
But what the clerk’s office terms the “unusually large percentage” of non-responses to jury invitations has also forced it to ask for help from the Vance County Sheriff’s Office.
Sheriff Curtis Brame said the list of non-responders includes 215 names, and that he’s asked patrol officers to lend a hand in tracking down the people on it when they’re not tied up answering calls.
The problem is as “there’s no phone numbers attached” to the list, deputies have to find people at their homes, and in some cases have to cope with the fact that a person’s given address is just a post-office box, Brame said.
But the task is important because “I think they’ve got two murder trials set up, and without jurors they’ll have to try again” to schedule them, Brame said.
The previous hold on jury trials began early in the pandemic as part of the various emergency measures the state imposed to enforce social distancing as a way of slowing the spread of COVID-19.
The 2020 election, however, yielded a change at the top of the hierarchy of the North Carolina court system when Paul Newby replaced Cherie Beasley as chief justice of the state Supreme Court. He promptly loosened the reins on holding trials, albeit with the direction that local officials should act with “due regard for the COVID-19 situation in their respective districts.”
Dunlow responded to that by issuing an order that allowed a resumption of jury trials on the Superior Court level after Feb. 26. As Feb. 27 and Feb. 28 fell on a weekend, that meant resumption on March 1.
Jury proceedings in District Court civil proceedings remain on hold, with Chief District Judge John Davis saying a resumption in the lower court will “be addressed no later than June 30” if not earlier.
The social-distancing precautions for jurors amount to making sure they can remain 6 feet apart at all times, in both the jury room and the courtroom, Gupton said.
The jury room is large enough for jurors to sit 6 feet apart for meetings and deliberations. In the courtroom, jurors are assigned seats in what normally would be the chamber’s spectator benches. As for the actual courtroom jury box, “we’re not allowing anybody to sit in that [because] because there’s just not enough room,” Gupton said
Clerks have also arranged the placement of TV monitors so jurors and lawyers can see every exhibit without having to crowd together. When sensitive exhibits like crime-scene photos are on display, judges have the option of clearing the room of spectators, Gupton said.
Maintenance workers come in regularly to disinfect the key facilities. “We’re doing everything we can possibly do to keep everybody safe in that courtroom and in that jury room,” Gupton said. “We’ve even got baskets for new and used ink pens, so nobody has to touch a used pen. We sanitize those later.”
He added that the courthouse has “had one successful jury trial already,” of a case involving a weapons charge, and Safety-wise,” it went very well.”
Sheriff’s deputies conduct screenings for COVID-19 symptoms or contacts at the courthouse door, using a machine that gauges a would-be entrant’s temperature and also takes their picture.
All the usual questions are asked, and “we’ve turned a few people away for that reason,” Gupton said, adding that in the course of devising the protocols, the clerk’s office had two people from Granville-Vance Public Health come in to review the operation and offer advice.
“We don’t want an outbreak in this courthouse,” he added, acknowledging that a number of people on his staff tested positive for the virus back in the late fall and early winter, though none “really got sick.”
Contact Ray Gronberg at email@example.com or by phone at 252-436-2850.