LIMA — A jury trial at Veterans Memorial Civic Center in downtown Lima? Or in a currently vacant room on the fourth floor of the Allen County Courthouse?
Those are just two scenarios under consideration as local judges seek ways to keep a mounting caseload from becoming overwhelming while at the same time assuring the health and safety of jurors, defendants, witnesses and court employees amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s a delicate balancing act, “but we are definitely trying” to get the wheels of justice spinning once again, according to one county judge.
Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey Reed said a local court order was issued Tuesday morning extending the postponement of all jury trials in Allen County through the end of May. In mid-March the court vacated trials and most in-person judicial hearings through May 1 as the coronavirus became a health threat. With a plateau in the number of new virus cases now evident locally, Reed said it’s imperative that plans be put in place to resume trying cases.
“It’s day-to-day, week-by-week right now,” Reed said, “but we’re going to figure a way to hold jury trials starting in June, one way or another.”
One of the biggest obstacles facing the court is the social distancing mandates put in place by Gov. Mike DeWine. The health of prospective jurors who must gather in large numbers for what is known as voir dire — a selection process where potential jurors may be questioned by attorneys — is chief among those concerns.
The narrow, cramped hallway outside the current common pleas courtrooms on the second floor of the Allen County Justice Center does not lend itself as an ideal setting for social distancing purposes. For that reason, Reed said, other options are being explored.
“There’s a large room on the top floor of the old courthouse that would be perfect for trials. There’s a lot of space up there,” Reed said. What is currently lacking, however, is the wiring and equipment necessary for court personnel to record and preserve the official record of a trial.
“There are some logistical issues with sound and recording in the room on the fourth floor, and security is always an issue. We’ve also scoped out the Civic Center” as a possible site for jury trials, Reed said.
“Nothing has been ruled out. My plan is to start having trials in June. Where they will be held and what they will look like is still to be determined,” the judge said.
Reed said when jury trials do resume, restrictions will be in place. The number of spectators and family members allowed in the courtroom will be limited and all persons will be required to wear masks. Smaller than normal jury selection pools could be summoned to accommodate social distancing guidelines.
The Allen County grand jury did not meet in April but will convene next week to hear cases and determine which defendants will be formally charged with crimes. Reed said that while there initially was talk of doing the proceedings electronically to comply with social distancing mandates, it has been determined all necessary parties, with the exception of lay witnesses and perhaps law enforcement, will be present during the sessions.
“It is very important that we maintain the secrecy of the grand jury proceedings,” Reed said.
Civil trials, Reed added, “will probably have to take a back seat” to criminal proceedings as the courts fill their dockets.
“We are just going to be very, very busy” with some high profile jury trials in June, he said.