Old Space, New Place for Jury Trials Due to COVID-19
By Csaba Sukosd | June 11, 2020
With physical distancing part of the new norm due to the coronavirus, courtrooms across Ohio need more space. For some, that means holding jury trials outside of the building.
In Allen County, the common pleas court found its solution right next door to its justice center - at the former courthouse.
"We were very lucky to have an older room in our old courthouse that used to be used be our probate court," said Judge Jeffrey Reed.
Given the narrow courtrooms, and even narrower hallways where jurors would congregate in the current court building, Judge Reed and county officials explored more spacious venues, such as the Veterans Memorial Civic and Convention Center. But with limited parking, and the need to significantly increase security to cover the larger area, decisionmakers directed their attention to the former probate courtroom.
The space, which is twice as large as current courtrooms, was in the middle of a reconstruction that was abandoned after administrators couldn't finalize the exact use of the room.
"It was gutted. The jury box chairs were removed, the security, sound and recording systems were also removed. The older bench and gallery pews remain," Judge Reed said.
Those alterations allow eight chairs to be placed six feet apart in the jury box, with the remaining four jurors to be seated in the front row of the visitor pews. The location can comfortably hold 15-to-20 people spaced far apart, in addition to the judge, court staff, and jurors. Adjacent offices will serve as a jury waiting room and holding room for the defendant.
The court, like all others across Ohio, has tried to work remotely as much as possible. While civil jury trials can be held virtually, criminal trials typically cannot. Barring a few limited exceptions, the Confrontation Clause in the U.S. Constitution's Sixth Amendment gives criminal defendants the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses in person.
Locked in on the location, and supplied with surplus recording equipment from the juvenile and probate court, the final clearance remains logistics.
"You think you've got everything, and then somebody says, 'Well, how do all the jurors come up on the elevator? You can only get one person up on the elevator at one time to keep the six-foot social distancing,'" Judge Reed said.
The interim courtroom is on the fourth floor. For those who aren't able to climb the stairs, the court plans to give jurors sole access to the elevator, one at a time, from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m., when county offices open to the public.
"It's just like any trial before COVID. You never know. That's the nature of any jury trial. Something's going to come up that maybe you didn't plan for. That's part of being a judge. You've just got to be able to react," Judge Reed said.
To keep abreast of coronavirus guidance from Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor and local court orders, consult this link on the Supreme Court website.