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Jury trials in Idaho prevented amid rising COVID-19 cases

UPDATED: Mon., Oct. 26, 2020

Associated Press

BURLEY, Idaho — Most of the courts in south-central Idaho have been prevented from holding jury trials because of high weekly confirmed coronavirus case numbers following an order that places virus case thresholds on when trials can resume.

The Idaho Supreme Court issued the order last month allowing jury trials to start again when counties meet the threshold for new cases, the Times-News reported. The high court previously suspended all trials in March, when the pandemic began.

Jury trials can only be held if the weekly average of new cases in the counties is under 25 cases per 100,000 residents under the order, or if the rate does not increase the week after counties record 14 to 25 cases.

Camas County is the only Idaho county that has low enough numbers now to hold jury trials.

There are currently 247 criminal felony cases and 137 misdemeanor cases awaiting trials in the Fifth Judicial District, which includes Camas, Blaine, Cassia, Gooding Jerome, Lincoln, Minidoka and Twin Falls counties, trial court administrator Shelli Tubbs said.

Tubbs said jury trials are scheduled weekly, jury pools are set and courts await the COVID-19 case numbers from the Idaho Health and Welfare every Thursday to determine if they can hold trials.

There has only been one in-person trial held in Twin Falls since the order was implemented. It took place the week of Sept. 14 when the number of confirmed cases dropped, she said.

Courts have instead conducted virtual meetings for nearly all other hearings, Tubbs said.

Fifth Judicial District Administrative Judge Eric J. Wildman said the district has been able to prevent a serious backlog with the use of online meetings and mediation.

The Supreme Court orders also require people entering courts to wear masks and maintain social distancing.

Jury commissioners send out virus questionnaires and perform virus screenings before juries are allowed in court, Wildman said. Courtrooms have been used as jury rooms during trials because the small size of jury deliberations rooms do not comply with public health safety requirements.

The proceedings are open to the public through a live stream available online after juries are selected, officials said.

Tubbs said she expects the court changes will likely continue and may alter the way the district constructs its new judicial buildings so it can plan for larger rooms if similar situations happen in the future. Other changes include staggering the starting times and breaks for jury trials held on the same day to reduce the number of people gathering in one place.

The number of virus infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

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