Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Milwaukee County residents returned to jury duty this week, wearing masks, following signs, waiting on limited elevator space, sanitizing their hands, and moving around plexiglass barriers.
Their arrival followed months of planning by court and county officials — from judges and lawyers to doctors, carpenters and cleaning crews — to devise safeguards that might allow jury trials for the first time since the coronavirus shutdown in mid-March.
About 300 jailed defendants are awaiting their “speedy” trials now, said Chief Judge Mary Triggiano. The Supreme Court earlier ordered that the pandemic was a legal reason not to hold them by the required deadlines.
Some criminal court hearings continued through the shutdown, and more were held remotely on Zoom, but gathering dozens of people together for hours of jury duty, from assembling to possible deliberations, was seen as too risky.
But now, with the plans and precautions in place, officials think the risk is negligible and worthwhile to protect the constitutional rights of defendants to a trial.
Officials chose for trial two cases that seemed ready and that weren’t expected to take more than a couple days.
Still, there were questions and nervous officials watching the first two trials in specially-designated large courtrooms. Would jurors be fearful of being among other people indoors for hours? Would court reporters be able to hear everyone’s speech through masks and plexiglass? Would it be hard to measure witnesses’ credibility and lawyers’ meaning without fully seeing their faces?
One big question was whether people would even respond to summonses.
“We had no idea how many people would show up,” said John Barrett, clerk of courts. He said about 850 jury duty notices were sent out over the past month, along with a letter regarding the unique circumstances. Less than 100 people showed up last week (when three scheduled trials were all canceled or postponed for other reasons).
“We’re going to be able to get juries” and hold trials, Barrett said with some relief.
Thirty potential jurors for each case sat spaced out in the galleries of two of the largest courtrooms until 14 were selected Monday. That left no room for the news media, but the proceedings were live-streamed on YouTube, like many other court hearings have been since April. Unfortunately, the potential jurors’ responses to question during the selection process were inaudible. Triggiano said officials are exploring closed-circuit TV options to address that problem.
A queue for boarding the elevator at the Milwaukee County Courthouse complex. Only two people are a time are allowed on the elevators, as part of efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Judges in both cases asked prospective jurors a new set of questions in addition to the standard ones about whether they’ve served a jury before, if they reached a verdict and if they were the foreperson.
Now, they are asked first whether they’ve suffered any symptoms from COVID-19, know anyone infected, whether they have suffered any financial or emotional impact from the pandemic, and whether any fear of infection — or the distraction of wearing a mask —would interfere with giving their full attention to the trial for as long as it takes.
In one case involving an armed robbery, the defendant decided to plead guilty to a lesser charge Tuesday morning, just before lawyers would have made opening statements to the jury.
In the other, the jury heard testimony in a domestic violence and gun possession case. Circuit Judge David Feiss had to remind the victim, the reluctant key witness, to take her mask down so jurors could take the full measure of her testimony.
Instead of passing around one set of printouts of text messages among the jurors, prosecutors needed to make 14 sets. During a morning break, jurors had to fill out a health questionnaire regarding possible COVID-19 symptoms or exposures, which one juror remarked was like closing the barn door after the horses have left.
But in general, aside from the presence of masks and plexiglass panels, the trial was just like any other.
Assistant District Attorney Grant Huebner, who prosecuted the robbery case, said jury selection took longer than normal.
“Given all the safeguards and precautions, it went smoother than I thought it would,” he said, and expects it will be a little easier next week.
“The mask, the plexiglass, the extra time, eventually it will feel normal, but not yet.”
Huebner and the judge in the case, Glenn Yamahiro, said they were pleasantly surprised that no one in the jury pool seemed to be trying to dodge selection by raising fear of infection.
“All 30 said they knew the risks, and were satisfied with the precautions,” Huebner said. “It was kind of honorable, it made me proud of the system.”
The second trial continued into the week.
Triggiano said her committees are still working out which of the many backlogged trials will happen and when. She said it’s not simply a matter of the oldest case, or most serious charges, going first. Rather, each division among the criminal branches will most likely be scheduled for certain weeks in the two trial courtrooms. The judges and lawyers can then prioritize trials based on a variety of factors. Weeks ago, she said state court administration officials in Madison had projected Milwaukee County may not clear its backlog of cases until the end of 2023.
Waukesha County was also holding its first post-lock down jury trial this week, a sexual assault case before Circuit Judge Laura Lau.