Summit courts take safety precautions for the return of jurors
When a Northfield woman recently got a summons for jury duty in Stow Municipal Court, she was excited to serve but also concerned about what safety measures the court was taking in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
She called the court and learned that plastic partitions had been erected to separate jurors and attorneys, everyone would be required to wear masks and the space would be kept clean and sanitized.
The 60-year-old woman reported for jury duty and was selected – serving recently in the first jury trial in Summit County since the pandemic hit – and was satisfied with the steps the court took.
“I felt very well protected – safer than other places,” said the woman, who asked that her name not be used.
Since the pandemic began, most serious matters in Summit County courts, including trials, have been delayed and other proceedings have been handled via videoconferencing or telephone. With the pandemic continuing and safety measures still required, courts have scrambled to figure out how to proceed with trials when they must be held, particularly when a defendant’s right to a speedy trial is in jeopardy.
Local courts have required people who enter the courthouse to have their temperatures taken and to wear masks. They have erected plastic barriers in courtrooms and cleaned and sanitized courtrooms and other spaces.
For jury trials, Stow and Summit County Common Pleas Court will use different spaces in their courthouses than usual to allow for the required 6 feet of distancing of jurors. The Akron and Barberton courts, however, don’t have large enough spaces to allow jurors to spread out and plan to use outside locations for jury trials.
“We’re ready,” said Montrella Jackson, the court administrator for Akron Municipal Court, which expects to have at least one jury trial this month. “We also want jurors to know that we’re not taking their safety lightly.”
Here’s a look at the jury trial plans adopted by several Summit County courts.
In Stow’s jury trial, the court also found jurors willing to serve.
Out of a pool of 21, two requested excusals for non-coronavirus health reasons and another because he was the law partner of one of the attorneys in the case.
The jurors were questioned in groups, with the rest waiting in a large training room in the courthouse that is newer than those in Akron or Barberton.
Eight jurors and one alternate were chosen for the trial of a man arrested in February for his third operating under the influence charge in six years.
In Judge Kim Hoover’s courtroom, the jurors and attorneys were separated by plastic partitions, with everyone required to wear masks. Hoover asked the attorneys to speak at a podium and not approach the jurors.
The trial lasted a day and a half, with the jurors finding the man guilty. He will be sentenced Sept. 17.
Hoover said he thought the trial went well and provided a good template. The court has six to eight jury trials a year, and Judge Lisa Coates, the second Stow judge, is expected to have one next week.
“It went surprisingly smoothly,” Hoover said.
Rick Klinger, the court administrator, said everyone from the court worked together, including probation officers helping with cleaning when jurors moved from one area of the courthouse to another.
Jon Sinn, who represented the defendant with attorney Julie Toth, said he thought the court did a good job, though he wasn’t pleased with the verdict. He said he is concerned that jury trials may be stacked against the defense, with people who think COVID-19 is a hoax more likely to be willing to serve than those who are concerned about the virus. He said the willing jurors may skew more pro-police and prosecutor.
“If the only folks on a jury are virus hoaxers, is that a fair and just panel?” asked Sinn, a trial lawyer for 25 years.
When the Barberton judges were searching for a space to hold jury trials, they considered holding them outside, perhaps at the Lake Anna Gazebo.
Judge Todd McKenney was inspired by photographs he’d seen of courts holding trials outside during the 1919 pandemic.
McKenney and Judge Jill Flagg Lanzinger, the second Barberton judge, however, knew they’d need an alternate location if the weather didn’t cooperate. They didn’t have to look far for a suitable spot.
They toured the Masonic Temple that’s attached to the courthouse and found a spacious room on the fourth floor. The judges decided to abandon the outdoor idea in favor of this space.
“If I had to design a room to do trials in during COVID, this would be the one,” McKenney said.
The judges have blocked off a two-week period in mid-October for back-to-back jury trials. Lanzinger will hold trials one week, while McKenney handles other court proceedings, and they’ll then switch.
They plan to schedule 20 to 25 cases for trial, with many of the misdemeanor cases likely to be settled with pleas.
During the proceedings, wireless microphones and a sound system will be used to keep a record. Tables and chairs will be set up, with benches that line the room also used.
“We can space jurors out easily around the room,” McKenney said.
If this jury-trial period works out, McKenney said, they may look at repeating it in January. The court, which averages 18 to 22 jury trials a year, is renting the space for $125 a day.
“It’s exciting for us,” McKenney said. “The most frustrating part – the part we couldn’t get to work – has been jury trials.”
McKenney, though, also said the logistics will be difficult.
“It’s also a lot – the rental, setup and sound,” he said. “It’s a trade-off. We’re going to try to get as many in as we can.”
Like Barberton, Akron Municipal Court is in an older building with not a lot of space.
The court was searching for other potential locations for jury trials when Oriana House offered the use of its training facility, housed in a former church on Carroll Street not far from downtown Akron.
Oriana House isn’t currently using the facility, with most of its training being done online and offered its use for free.
“We checked out the site and it seemed to fit,” said Jackson, the court administrator.
The court is using a wide-open space in the basement where chairs and tables were brought in, with chairs spaced out and separated by plastic partitions that are portable. The proceedings will be recorded to maintain the record.
Court officials were concerned about security and Akron City Council offered the use of its metal detector, which isn’t currently needed because of council meetings being done virtually.
The court, which averages 24 jury trials a year, plans to use the Oriana space through the end of the year and then decide about next year.
The court’s six judges will try to coordinate their schedules to plan for use of the outside space. If two trials need to be held at the same time, Jackson said they will rent space at the John S. Knight Center.
“We’re trying to anticipate every challenge we can prepare for,” Jackson said. “We know there’s going to be something.”
Summit County Common Pleas Court is in an older building that has a larger space available to permit jurors to spread out.
The court’s 10 judges will use the ceremonial courtroom, the biggest room in the courthouse, during the selection process and – after the jury is picked – move to their own courtrooms for the trial.
Amy Corrigall Jones, the court’s administrative judge, issued an order last week that prohibited jury trials this month unless a speedy-trial deadline requires that a trial go forward.
Jones has a murder trial that is scheduled to begin Friday, though the defense attorney has requested a continuance. Jones will have a hearing Wednesday on the case of Erica Stefanko, a Rittman woman accused in connection with the 2012 death of a Jackson Township woman.
The court, which had 43 to 65 felony jury trials the past three years, is requiring those who enter the courthouse to have their temperatures taken and to wear masks. Plastic partitions have been erected in courtrooms, with it left to each judge to decide the configuration.
Potential jurors will be excused if they are under self-quarantine, reside in a nursing home, have been in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 or have tested positive themselves. Jurors over 65 may also be excused unless they want to serve.
If jurors say they are uncomfortable serving because of coronavirus concerns, they likely will be excused, Jones said.
Jurors were summoned for a trial in Judge Alison McCarty’s court last month that was delayed after the attorney asked to be removed from the case. Jones said 40 jurors were available if the trial went forward.
“There are still members of the community who are willing to serve,” Jones said.
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 330-996-3705 and on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.