America’s legal system is under pressure. COVID-19 safety measures created massive backlogs. But as trials begin again, many jurors simply aren’t reporting for duty. Most cite pandemic concerns as their excuses. Now legal experts must resolve the clash between speedy trials and public health.
Jury duty notices have upset Nicholas Philbrook’s home. The Philbrook family worries Nicholas will contract the coronavirus and infect his wife’s father, a 70-something cancer survivor with diabetes. Philbrook has been trying to convince court officials to excuse him from jury duty because his father-in-law lives with him.
“My main concern is you still have to go into a building,” says Philbrook. “In an enclosed space, how safe are you?”
Some state and federal courts have suspended jury trials because of rising virus rates. Recently, multiple U.S. judges declared mistrials because people connected to the trials either tested positive for the virus or had symptoms.
A few courts have held trials by video conference. Video conferences may seem like a good idea, but many defense lawyers oppose them. It’s hard to detect witness honesty and tell whether jurors are paying attention, says lawyer Christopher Adams.
Criminal defense lawyers point to another major problem: With these delays, defendants are denied the constitutional right to a speedy trial.
There’s also the problem of having too few people appear for jury duty. In one Connecticut trial, only about half the possible jurors showed up. Others were excused for various reasons, including concerns about COVID-19. Only 19 jurors were left, short of the 31 usually needed to pick a jury of 12 and one alternate.
Then two court security officers tested positive. That closed the courthouse for cleaning. It also prompted Judge Vanessa Bryant’s law clerk to go into isolation and get tested for infection.
Bryant postponed jury selection. She ruled public health interests outweigh those of a speedy trial.
In San Diego, a criminal case had to be postponed because too few people showed up for jury duty. Officials twice summoned 900 people, but only about 40 people showed up each time.
Failure to report to jury duty is a crime in most states. Punishment can include fines and even short jail sentences.
“Many courts have been responsive to jurors who have said that they’re not comfortable with coming to court,” says legal analyst Bill Raftery.
For now, the legal system limps along. Lawyer Adams says, “For almost everybody, there is no compelling need for trials to go forward during the pandemic.” That “almost” likely includes those awaiting their day in court—at least for those hoping for acquittal.