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Courts to resume jury selection with social distancing, masks

With both face masks and shields required for jury duty, Lycoming County court officials said they are condensing the selection process and lengthening the list of valid excuses.

“We take the health and safety of our jurors very seriously,” said Adrianne Stahl, court administrator. “We wouldn’t be having selection and trials if we didn’t believe the precautions we’re putting in place are going to keep the jurors safe.”

Beginning on or around Aug. 10, the first day of jury selection since the pandemic began, court personnel will continually conduct temperature checks at the entrance for jurors, staff and anyone attending a proceeding, Stahl said.

Those called for jury duty are scheduled to receive a valid excuse or deferral form, which includes COVID-19-related questions. Those include some on the financial impact service would pose, vulnerable population concerns, or potential exposure to the coronavirus, among others.

“At this time, we have a very liberal excusal policy. They fill out that form about what their concerns are and we will excuse them from that process,” said Stahl. “There are a whole host of other questions from what we normally include.”

Additionally, jurors are asked to call during the prior business day before their selection day to confirm that they still plan to attend, have since been exposed to someone who may have had COVID-19 or have symptoms.

“I want to make sure that those people don’t come in if they’ve had an exposure or are having those symptoms,” she said.

The number of selection rounds will remain the same, but they will be staggered throughout the week with only about 50 to 60 jurors being called for a morning or afternoon.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s July 15 mandate, which forbids gatherings of more than 25 people in any indoor area, does not affect the courts, said Stahl.

The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, which oversees all judicial courts in the state, confirmed that with Gov. Wolf’s legal team soon after the mandate was released.

It falls on the courts to protect public safety when calling people to court, “but of course we want to follow Centers for Disease Control guidelines and state Department of Health recommendations,” said Stahl.

The courthouse will provide both face masks and shields. If a mask cannot be warn for medical reasons, that will be respected, but the shields must be worn at all times, she said.

It’s the administration’s hope that “as people are responding to questions, they will be able to pull their masks down to better be able to communicate with attorneys, so they can hear them or if they’re having problems breathing,” said Stahl.

The selection process will use two rooms to ensure proper social distancing may occur.

In limiting the overall number of people in the courthouse at large, those summoned also will be able to distance themselves while walking in the halls and on elevators.

“At first I had jurors report for one day, and they would spend a morning and an afternoon with us, but we condensed that even more so as to not inconvenience them,” she said. “We typically only have jurors with us for one morning or one afternoon.”

Where a juror prior to COVID-19 may have been to multiple courtrooms to run through the selection process, they will now only go into one courtroom, which will be sanitized following the group’s departure, said Stahl.

Coffee and snacks will no longer be offered, instead the jurors will be asked to provide their own drinks in a plastic bottle and food, as well as books and magazines to entertain themselves during the time spent waiting.

The trial term is scheduled to run from Aug. 24 to Sept. 18, and those jurors selected may need to report for either one or two days.

The public and media will not be limited unless a large number of people wish to attend, in which case it will be handled on a case-by-case basis, said Stahl.

“One thing they need to realize is that jury duty is very important in safeguarding some of the most crucial rights under our legal system and under our constitution,” she said. “Defendants have a constitutional right to a speedy trial, so we’ve already put off selection and jury trials for over four months. It’s been over six months since we’ve had a jury selection.”

“We need these jurors to come in so that we can preserve those rights,” she added.

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