It has been almost a year since jury trials around the state were put on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Wednesday, Warren County Circuit Court was given the approval by the state’s judicial system to resume holding the trials after submitting a plan to conduct them safely.
“We’re very glad that it has happened,” said Warren County Commonwealth's Attorney John Bell.
For felony criminal trials, the plan calls for using Courtroom B at the courthouse, which is smaller than courtroom A but has better acoustics for jury members. Courtroom B will be used for civil and misdemeanor trials.
Plexiglass will be set up around the witness stand, and attorneys will be rearranged in the room to create distance between them, the witness, the judge and jurors. Counsel will be limited to stand at their tables and a lectern that will also be socially distanced from other parties in the room.
For the felony criminal trials, as the parties essential to the proceeding will conduct it in Courtroom B, audience members will be allowed in Courtroom A and watch the proceedings via video conferencing. Seating priorities will be given to the immediate family of the parties involved and the media.
The trials will be recessed every two hours to allow for the cleaning of the courtroom. Sidebars will be held in separate rooms and require masks and distancing. All people entering the courthouse are required to wear a mask, and social distancing will be enforced as hand sanitizer will be provided throughout the courthouse.
Extensive questioning of potential jurors prior to them entering the courthouse for voire dire, the preliminary examination to pick the members of a jury, will be done. Trial participants will have their temperatures checked and questions asked of them in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. If a trial participant, juror or otherwise, has possible contraction of COVID-19 and comes into close contact with other participants, the trial will have to be recessed and continued or declared a mistrial.
“New times, new procedures,” said Bell, adding a recess could last as long as it needs to. Practically, he hasn’t heard of a recess lasting longer than a week, but “we’ll have to see how it goes," he said.
The court will proceed with scheduling trials on the scheduling docket on Feb. 26, which includes cases that have been expected to go to trial, Judge William Sharp said.
Because trials were put on hold and certain cases were looking to be headed to trial, Sharp previously employed a plan to schedule cases expected for trial for the same day. That way they could all be continued at once if jury trials still weren’t allowed by the time that scheduling date came around.
Among those are the murder cases against Richard Crouch Crouch and George Good that began in January 2020. The two have been held without bond at Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren Regional jail as their cases have been continued waiting for the jury trial allowance. Priority for how cases are scheduled will be given to those who are incarcerated, all other things being equal, Bell said.
“In the short term, it means that we’re all hustling and reviewing files that have been on hold for months and working around to try and come up with a good set of priorities for cases,” Bell said. “But at the end of the day, it's about getting witnesses and evidence presented before a jury in a courtroom, and that’s what we do.”
Shenandoah County has not been approved to resume jury trials, though it is a part of the same circuit as Warren County. Shenandoah County had made revisions to its plan earlier in the week and the hope is to be approved by the end of the month, said Sarona Irvin, clerk of Shenandoah County Circuit Court.
Shenandoah County has a similar scheduling docket for cases expected to go to trial for Feb. 24, with a couple of other cases scheduled for March 25.
Among those March 25 cases is the murder case against David Knott, who was arrested in January 2019 and charged in the slaying of former county Board of Supervisor member Cynthia Dellinger. The case was delayed multiple times prior to the pandemic.
Ninety-eight circuit courts have been approved to resume jury trials throughout the state.
Correction: This story has been updated to identify Mr. Crouch as Richard Crouch.