Administrators of Vermont’s Judiciary are reviewing a report with a number of recommendations for restarting criminal jury trials in the state.
But the challenges involved make it unlikely that trials will start by the expected date of Sept. 1.
The report anticipates the need for “extensive preparation” even before the courts begin sending out notifications to potential jurors. Jury trials are not likely to begin immediately on Sept. 1, and not all counties are expected to resume at the same time.
“Planning will take time and, as this report suggests, jury work cannot begin in a unit until that unit has a unit plan in place, potential jurors are educated about the safety measures in place, adequate plans for cleaning have been instituted, modifications to the physical layout or other accommodations to provide for social distancing have been made and all air systems in courthouses have been determined to provide safe and adequate air handling. There is much work to be done on all of these fronts,” the report stated.
While courts in Vermont have continued to hear emergency cases, most court matters were delayed beginning in March in response to the declared state of emergency. The Scott administration has been working with the Vermont Department of Health to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19.
In May, the judiciary announced a plan to begin reopening the courts, which called for some criminal matters to resume in June and criminal jury trials to resume as of Sept. 1.
A 30-page report on criminal jury trials, posted to the Vermont Judiciary’s website this week challenges the idea the state will be prepared in a month to resume criminal trials.
The report includes an inventory of county courthouses and found that Rutland and Washington counties had the facilities needed.
The report was created by the Jury Restart Committee, which included two Vermont Supreme Court members, two trial judges, Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault, and Rutland County Public Defender Mary Kay Lanthier.
Some of the recommendations are a public information campaign to let potential jurors know what steps are being taken so they can feel safe reporting for jury duty; a new questionnaire that would allow some potential jurors to be eliminated without traveling to the courtroom; and cutting off negotiated plea agreements on the days of trial so a jury is not picked and members report to the courthouse for a trial that won’t take place.
One recommendation suggests judges ask a defendant whether they are willing to accept a jury with fewer than 12 members. The committee also suggests the judiciary ask the Legislature to consider striking the right to a trial for fish and game offenses and traffic tickets.
In an email, Lanthier called the right to a trial by a jury of 12 peers “the most important right” for a person charged with a crime
Lanthier said defendants can sit in a jail cell, even though they are presumed innocent, with no way to get out without a speedy trial. She said others accused of a crime are under significant restrictions as their cases are pending.
Lanthier acknowledged the difficulty of responding to the unprecedented COVID crisis.
“This need, however, must be balanced against the foundational importance of a criminal justice system that retains its humanity and procedural and substantive fairness,” she said. “We have to move forward with personal appearance and engagement. We are grocery shopping. We are dining out in restaurants. We are returning to church. We must be able to have in-person jury trials.”
Thibault said he understood many people are not excited to get a jury summons in the mail.
“Nevertheless, a juror’s service, especially in criminal trials, is an important part of our democracy and our form of government,” he said.
Thibault said COVID had an impact on much of Vermont life, but he pointed out the additional stress it had for people held in jail, waiting for their day in courts, while criminal trials were put on hold for six months.
“Likewise, that delay has impacted individuals who are victims of crime, as well,” he said.
Thibault added that he believed the panel had worked well together to come up with the recommendations.
The judiciary’s current proposal is to resume civil jury trials in 2021.
Patricia Gabel, state court administrator for the Vermont Supreme Court, said in a Tuesday email that with the report submitted, she and Judge Brian Grearson, chief superior judge for Vermont, hope to submit a plan for implementation early in August.