Jury trials may again resume in Spokane County Superior Court starting next week.
The court recently hit the brakes on jury trials a second time due to concerns about the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Spokane County and the potential for the coronavirus to spread in crowded courtrooms.
That decision was made by Judge Michael Price and announced in an email to court staff on July 29, which noted some employees and attorneys had been “directly exposed” to the virus. At the time, Price was the court’s acting presiding judge, while Judge Harold Clarke, who typically leads the bench, was on vacation.
Clarke, who returned to work last week, said Monday that jury trials will be allowed to resume starting Aug. 17.
“The court took the step of pausing jury trials to allow a review of our protocols to ensure the safety of jurors, trial participants, court staff and the public,” he wrote in an email to court staff. “After completing that review, the court is satisfied the protocols in place do provide all possible protection for everyone involved in the jury trial process.”
Clarke said the court had discussed its plan with the Spokane Regional Health District.
“We are following all requirements and recommendations of the health district,” he wrote. “We will continue to review and adjust our jury trial protocols based on guidance from the health district as we move forward.”
The court first suspended jury and bench trials in mid-March, as did Spokane County District Court and Spokane Municipal Court, which primarily handle civil citations, misdemeanors and lower-level felony cases.
The three local courts announced they would resume jury trials on July 6, when a statewide suspension order from the Washington Supreme Court expired. Only one jury trial took place in Superior Court before Price suspended them again.
Though the local courts have taken steps to release hundreds of people awaiting trial from the Spokane County Jail and the Geiger Corrections Center, postponing trials could force some defendants to remain incarcerated longer than they would under normal circumstances.
Questions of how and when to resume jury trials have been subjects of debate among Spokane County Superior Court judges and legal experts nationwide. The pandemic has made it challenging to secure defendants’ constitutional rights to speedy trials and legal representation.
Defendants also have a right to confront their accusers – and that, legal experts say, means testifying witnesses can’t have their facial expressions concealed by cloth masks.
“Because courts have a number of available options other than cloth face masks to reduce the spread of COVID-19 by or to witnesses, it is extremely unlikely that an appellate court would affirm a conviction obtained in a trial at which witnesses testified while wearing an opaque fabric face mask,” reads a memo that was distributed in May to the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.
Alternatives to mask requirements include installing glass or plexiglass barriers around witness stands and jury boxes.
In Spokane County Superior Court, “witnesses will be requested to remove their masks when they testify and social distancing will be enforced to the extent possible,” Clarke, the presiding judge, said in an email.
“As we ascertain the need for plexiglass barriers in specific locations and the product is available we will continue to install it,” he wrote. “That is an ongoing process.”
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