Maryland resuming jury trials with COVID-19 changes, some defendants left waiting months for day in court
WICOMICO CO., Md. – It’s been nearly seven months since jury trials were held in Maryland and when they start back up on Monday, courtrooms will have some new additions like plexiglass around the witness stand and tape marking off benches to help with social distancing. Officials say all of these changes and more are necessary to help the justice system move forward during such an uncertain time.
“We have defendants some who have been waiting for a trial for six or eight months due to COVID-19,” says Wicomico County Circuit Court Judge Jimmy Sarbanes.
As part of a phased reopening plan, Maryland courts are resuming jury trials on Monday, October 5. One of the major changes involves jury selection which, for Wicomico County, will now take place in the Flanders Room at the Civic Center. “We could only fit approximately 25 jurors being socially distanced into our current jury assembly room whereas in this room we can fit roughly 85 jurors which would allow us to bring a whole panel in,” says Judge Sarbanes.
Once jurors are picked, they’ll report back to the courthouse for the actual trial where cases are now staggered through out the day to help with social distancing. Inside the court room, jurors will be spaced out between the traditional box and some spaces on benches.
Everyone involved in the trial will be provided with clear masks as well. “One of the accommodations is that the court is going to provide clear masks to jurors and witnesses so that they are able to see their faces and their expressions during the course of a trial,” says Judge Sarbanes.
There are also markers on benches to limit capacity and plexiglass around the witness stand. “The witness is potentially the only individual in the courtroom who might remove a mask if there is an issue hearing what he or she had to say. So we’ve boxed that in, out of an abundance of caution,” says Melissa Batie, the Court Administrator for the Circuit Court for Wicomico County.
Officials say Wicomico County has a backlog of more than 300 cases because of COVID-19 so they hope these changes will keep everyone safe while providing the same due process guaranteed by the Constitution. “I don’t think that it will impact the justice they will get but we are going about a different path to get there,” says Judge Sarbanes.
There are also usually pitchers of water at tables in the courtroom for parties and attorneys. However to minimize contact, the court will instead be providing bottles of water for lengthy proceedings.
Judge Sarbanes also says Wicomico County is scheduling backlog cases right now out into the summer of 2021. He believes, even if they continue at their current pace, it will likely be upwards of a year before they can get caught up.