Delaware to Restart Jury Trials in June

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Plexiglass adorns the staff desks, witness box and judges bench in Courtroom 2 at the Sussex County Courthouse / Image WGMD/ML

Delaware courts are moving into Phase 3 of their reopening plan – which will restart jury trials statewide. Over the 15 months that the courts have been closed to the public because of the pandemic, a backlog of events and cases has built up in several of the courts. Superior Court has a backlog of 1,562 criminal cases – 316 of that number in Sussex County. (There is also a backlog — statewide of an additional 157 civil cases — but criminal cases are the priority right now). The Court of Common Pleas has a statewide backlog of 15,600 criminal cases and the Justice of the Peace Court reports 28,300 backlogged “Events” (meaning things like arrangements, case reviews, hearings and trials) Of that number 8,919 of those events are in Sussex-based Justice of the Peace Courts.

Seating in Courtrooms 1 & 2 is now socially distanced at 3-feet. Image WGMD/ML

The Court of Chancery, which does not require a jury for trials, has kept up with its docket and converted nearly all proceedings over to video or Zoom, so there is no backlog in the Court of Chancery. Supreme Court is the same – and has no backlog.

In a release earlier this week Chief Justice Collins J. Seitz says, “Thanks to Delawareans pulling together and getting vaccinated, we have seen a dramatic decline in COVID-19 infections. The Delaware courts will now resume in-person hearings and jury trials. While the use of video technology allowed the courts to keep on top of their dockets during the pandemic, we still have a significant backlog of cases in some of our courts. We will prioritize criminal matters as we work hard to return the courts to their pre-pandemic operations. As of July 6, we will authorize the courts to return to full staffing in our judicial facilities. We will continue to ease restrictions as conditions permit but the health and safety of all those who work in or visit Delaware court facilities remain our first priority.”

Jury box in courtroom 2 with 3-sided plexiglass pods for each juror. Image WGMD/ML
Jury box in courtroom 2 with 3-sided plexiglass pods for each juror. Image WGMD/ML

In Sussex County, Courtrooms 1 and 2 have been made safe for jury trials to proceed. The Courthouse is a state-owned property, so masking and social distancing will be maintained for anyone who enters the building. Distancing has been reduced to 3-feet, which will allow more people into the courtrooms. Courtroom 1 will be used for jury selection and once a jury has been chosen, the action will move to Courtroom 2, which is more up-to-date in its technology for trials.

Courtroom 2 has seen the most upgrades for coronavirus safety, with marked seating in the gallery, and plexiglass to separate each juror, the attorneys are separated with a space to pass papers through. The podiums will not be used for now – the attorneys will speak from their desks. There is also plexiglass separating court staff and the judge as well as the witness box.

In Sussex County, there will be one criminal case heard at a time. So the process will be slow, however it’s also likely that many of the backlogged cases will settle or plead out. It’s expected that the first jury trial will be in mid-June.

Getting ready for trial includes syncing numerous calendars – for the Court, the prosecutors and defense attorneys, department of corrections.

Court of Common Pleas statewide expects to begin bench trials in June, however jury trials until at least August. For Sussex County – this could change.

This is the second time since the start of the pandemic that the Delaware Courts have moved to restart jury trials. The first move to Phase 3 was on October 5, 2020. A jury trial was held in Kent County before the Courts returned to Phase 2 restrictions on Nov. 16, 2020 due to a surge in COVID-19 cases.

(For a complete list of Phase 3 safety measures please consult the Court’s Reopening plan here: https://courts.delaware.gov/aoc/courtsreopeningplan.pdf.)

Courtroom 1 will be used for jury selection -staff desks and Judge’s bench protected behind plexiglass. Image WGMD/ML