LIMA — While the first jury trial in Allen County Common Pleas Court during the coronavirus pandemic failed to materialize Monday following an 11th-hour plea by the defendant, the morning did reveal a glimpse of what future trials will look like in the age of COVID-19.
Trial preparations began Monday morning in an unusual location and featured unique procedural and logistical challenges for court officials, attorneys, jurors and visitors alike.
Potential jurors gathered not on the second floor of the Allen County Justice Center, as is the norm, but instead were ushered to the fourth floor of the Allen County courthouse for the first phase of jury selection. Only half the normal jury pool was instructed to show up at 8:45 a.m. Monday; court officials said a second pool of jurors would be summoned later in the day if attorneys failed to pick 12 jurors and two alternates from the initial group of potential jurors.
That proved unnecessary when the defendant unexpectedly entered his plea, bringing the proceedings to a halt.
The courtroom on the courthouse’s fourth floor has not been used in recent years but due to its spacious accommodations was seen as the best alternative for the county’s first jury trial since such proceedings were suspended in March by the novel coronavirus. Narrow hallways and small spectator seating areas at the justice center were deemed by court officials to be inadequate for jury trials for health reasons.
Among the logistical hurdles for the court at its temporary new location was the social distancing of jurors. Traditional jury boxes are not constructed to accommodate a 6-foot separation of jurors — a mandate in the age of the pandemic. Instead of the traditional cozy setting for jurors, chairs were spread out inside the jury box and outside it as well to accommodate the 14 individuals who were scheduled to hear the Monday’s case.
Social distancing also limited the number of potential spectators inside the courtroom at any one time, with chairs placed in the back of the courtroom to supplement bench seating that was marked with an “X” every six feet.
Court personnel over the past few weeks had wrestled with potential electrical and equipment issues necessary for the court reporter to record every word of the trial testimony and for other court officials to do their jobs efficiently. Shortly before the start of Monday’s trial a county IT specialist was reviewing with Judge Jeffrey Reed the various buttons and switches he would need to push to activate or de-activate individual microphones inside the courtroom.
While it was all so very different from the norm, the wheels of justice, with a few creaks and moans, were prepared to churn on. It didn’t happen Monday, but the exercise did provide a good test run for another upcoming jury trial next week.