MARTINEZ (KPIX 5) — Across the Bay Area, court systems are starting to reboot after being largely shut down since the middle of March. The changes necessary to proceed during the coronavirus pandemic, however, will be significant.
“We are all sort of making it up as we go,” said Presiding Judge Barry Baskin of Contra Costa County Superior Court. “It isn’t going to be the normal jury trial that we are all familiar with.”
Judge Baskin will be the first to admit it. They don’t have all of the answers yet as jury trials begin to resume in Contra Costa courthouses. For the foreseeable future, judges will be looking at a very different courtroom.
The courthouses have been frantically installing that plastic around witness stands. More will be placed in front of the jury panel, and the jury itself will be spread through the courtroom gallery, meaning virtually no one beyond the defendant and the attorneys will be able to witness a trial.
“The question will be, ‘Is it good enough for our constitution?'” said defense attorney Joseph Tully. “Do we have the resources to actually make things constitutionally adequate for accused people facing charges?”
Tully says the changes raise all kinds of questions, starting right off the bat with jury selection.
“How do you choose a jury of your peers while they’re wearing masks, where half of their face is covered up and you can’t tell their human emotions,” Tully asked. “Number two, social distancing. If the jurors are spread out around the courtroom, they obviously can’t fit in the jury box for social distancing. How do we as attorneys present evidence to them? We’re used to having one jury panel in a jury box.”
Questions about procedures and fairness will likely continue after a trial is over.
“Who knows how the appellate courts, ultimately, will rule about the extent to which we are altering the way trials are normally held,” said Baskin.
Courts were not entirely closed over the past 10 weeks. Emergency hearings were held for serious crimes, but most cases were put on hold. Every person who walks into a Contra Costa courthouse will now have their temperature taken. Jury selection for upcoming trials is expected to begin next week.