New Hanover Co. Courthouse prepares to resume jury trials, adds precautions
NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WWAY) — For seven months now, the courts around North Carolina have faced a backup due to COVID-19, being forced to put major trials on hold.
The District Attorney in New Hanover County says that’s about to change, with the easing of more restrictions in November.
“It is one of the last industries left in our country where, truly, in person conduct needs to take place,” DA Ben David said. “So we anticipate, even in the pandemic, having people coming in.”
Since March, David says jury trials have been at a halt. They haven’t been able to have jurors or witnesses in the courtroom due to COVID capacity restrictions. However, he says they’ve stayed busy with other court proceedings, and had to get creative.
“Pleas and hearings, probation violations, all of those have continued without interruption,” David said. “We’ve utilized a lot of technology also to try to bring in people from our jails and prisons without them needing to be here.”
David says the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court announced courts can resume jury trials. He says his district is aiming to get trials back underway on November 2, starting with shorter trials.
“We are going to be starting with more minor trials in the grand scheme on things,” he said. “Obviously, everything is major to someone who is charged or is a victim of a case, but we’re not going to be having homicide cases or sexual assault offense.”
David says it’s important to keep trials in-person to maintain the quality of the trial for both victims and defendants. However, he says things will look different.
“This box that’s behind me is not going to be utilized,” David said. “It obviously does not allow for social distancing. Jurors are going to be stretched out around a courtroom.”
He says witnesses will be called into the courtroom only when it’s their turn to testify.
“We’re not bringing them in by television at this time, and people are not going to be testifying remotely too much,” he said.
David says there will be some exceptions where witnesses will testify remotely in a case.
He says family, friends and the public may have to watch the trial electronically in a separate room and location.
David says their goal is to gradually work their way up to bigger trials involving charges like murder, sexual assault or armed robbery in the spring.
He says they’ll also continue to have the plexi glass dividers up on the judge’s bench in each courtroom, in addition to taking temperatures, doing health screenings and requiring masks of every person who comes into the courthouse.
Major trials that were rescheduled have reportedly been moved to the spring of 2021 or beyond.