Many saying ‘no’ to jury duty in pandemic
HARTFORD, Conn. — Jury duty notices have set Nicholas Philbrook’s home on edge with worries about him contracting the coronavirus and passing it on to his father-in-law, a cancer survivor with diabetes in his mid-70s who is at higher risk of developing serious complications from COVID-19.
Philbrook and his wife, Heather Schmidt, of Camarillo, California, have been trying to convince court officials that he should be excused from jury duty because her father lives with them. But court officials told him that is not a valid reason and he must appear in court early next month.
“My main concern is you still have to go into a building, you still have to be around a set number of people,” said Philbrook, 39, a marketing company editor. “In an enclosed space, how safe are you? It just doesn’t feel like a right time still to be doing that kind of stuff on a normal basis.”
People across the country have similar concerns amid resurgences of the coronavirus, a fact that has derailed plans to resume jury trials in many courthouses for the first time since the pandemic started.
Within the past month, courts in Hartford, Connecticut, San Diego and Norfolk, Virginia, have had to delay jury selection for trials because too few people responded to jury duty summonses. The non-response rates are much higher now than they were before the pandemic, court officials say.
Judges in New York City, Indiana, Colorado and Missouri declared mistrials recently because people connected to the trials either tested positive for the virus or had symptoms.
“What the real question boils down to are people willing to show up to that court and sit in a jury trial? said Bill Raftery, a senior analyst with the National Center for State Courts. “Many courts have been responsive to jurors who have said that they’re not comfortable with coming to court and doing jury duty and therefore offering deferrals simply because of concerns over COVID.”
Also this month, state court systems in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey and courts in Denver, Colorado, were among those to suspend all jury trials because of rising virus rates. On Friday, federal officials announced that about two dozen U.S. district courts across the county have suspended jury trials and grand jury proceedings because of virus outbreaks and too few people showing up for jury duty.
Courts are under pressure to resume trials because of the case backlogs piling up during the pandemic.
A few courts have held trials in person and by video conference. Although video conferences may appear to be the best bet, many criminal defense lawyers oppose them because it’s harder to determine witness credibility and to see if jurors are paying attention, said Christopher Adams, a lawyer in Charleston, South Carolina, and president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
“For almost everybody, there is no compelling need for trials to go forward during the pandemic,” he said, adding that most courts are not holding jury trials at the moment.