Philadelphia’s Criminal Justice Center was back buzzing with lawyers, police officers and jurors Tuesday, as the courthouse reopened for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic shut down most government facilities.
The buzz was certainly on a smaller scale. Fewer prospective jurors were called and there was only one criminal trial for which a jury would be selected.
The process for people on jury duty is similar to what Philadelphians are used to but with fewer people and a few new steps. I was one of the prospective jurors who was summoned on the first day.
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Everyone entering the courthouse, including prospective jurors, have to wear a mask. When prospective jurors checked in, they were checked for a fever with a digital thermometer and asked whether they have been exposed to COVID-19, had any symptoms and other screening questions. Then they were given a juror number and escorted to a room.
I was part of a group of 36 prospective jurors that was taken to a courtroom and not the usual jury assembly rooms. In the courtroom, each juror had a bench to their self to allow for social distance. Through a projected screen, we could see the other jury room, which was in one of the traditional assembly rooms but people were extremely spread out.
In total, there were about 100 prospective jurors who showed up Tuesday. Gabe Roberts, spokesman for the First Judicial District, said that is the plan going forward – to have between 85 to 100 prospective jurors each day and be able to pick one or two jury panels.
Prior to the pandemic, between 300 to 350 prospective jurors would come to court each day.
Cutting the jury pool to a third “will limit the number of jury trials the court can hear,” Roberts said.
Prospective jurors are sworn in by a judge via a video screen. But once the “voir dire” part takes place – when a judge brings in a potential juror for one-on-one questioning in front of the prosecutor and defense – the prospective juror is brought into the courtroom.
The court will be limiting the number of people who can attend a trial due to social distancing guidelines amid a pandemic. To make the court proceedings accessible to the public, the First Judicial District will be streaming trials on YouTube. The proceedings will not be taped and will not be available after the streaming concludes.
Criminal trials are expected to start this week. Civil trials won’t start until after the new year.