Hinds County Circuit Court summoned prospective jurors to The Westin hotel in downtown Jackson on Monday, Aug. 31, as the courts worked to resume jury trials during the pandemic.
Entire trials in some cases will be conducted in non-traditional venues. Since some of the Hinds County courtrooms are too small for social distancing, the Mississippi Coliseum and the Mississippi Trademart are expected to be used to hold trials.
Hinds Circuit Judges also changed the timing of trial proceedings, working this week to select enough jurors to serve throughout the six-week court term which is scheduled to begin Sept. 8 in Jackson. Judges on Monday conducted only jury qualification, selecting those who qualify to serve as jurors and dismissing those who are not qualified to serve. The prospective jurors may be called back to court in the following weeks.
Senior Circuit Judge Tomie Green presided over jury qualifying Monday morning, and Circuit Judge Adrienne Wooten presided over jury qualifying Monday afternoon. A second day of jury qualifying will be conducted on Wednesday, Sept. 2, also at The Westin. Circuit Judge Winston Kidd and Circuit Judge Faye Peterson will conduct two sessions of jury qualification on Wednesday.
Judge Green said, “We are trying something that will allow us to have a pool for us to pull from for the six weeks” of the court term.
Judge Green also empaneled a new Hinds County Grand Jury on Monday. The previous grand jury, which was empaneled in January, continued to serve until the new grand jury was seated.
A total of 233 qualified prospective jurors were seated on Monday, just shy of 20 panels of 12 each, and 20 grand jurors were seated, said Hinds County Circuit Clerk Zack Wallace.
“It went well. It went better than I expected,” Wallace said.
Jury trials have been postponed in Hinds County Circuit Court since mid-March due to COVID-19.
Judge Green said, “It’s a fine balance between the rights of the defendants, who have a right to a speedy trial when demanded, and protecting the public the best we can.”
In compliance with an administrative order issued by the Supreme Court, the Circuit Clerk sent a letter to all summoned jurors advising them of special circumstances present during the COVID-19 pandemic. The letter said that the Court would excuse anyone who is ill, persons taking care of someone who had COVID-19 or having had recent contact with someone who COVID-19, persons having certain health conditions that could put them at risk, persons with recent jury service, and a few other circumstances.
Temperatures were taken upon arrival. Everyone wore masks. Seats were spaced for social distancing in a large hotel conference room.
The hotel facility costs $1,600 a day, Wallace said. The space and equipment for Monday and Wednesday jury qualifying will cost a total of $3,200.
Federal funding through the CARES Act is expected to cover extra trial expenses incurred as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Administrative Office of Courts CARES Act COVID-19 Fund can cover COVID-19 related expenses through December. Expenditures must be approved in advance.
Judge Green said, “It was (cost) prohibitive until we were sure we could get some CARES Act funds. And we wanted to be sure we could provide the safety measures to be able to proceed.”
Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Randolph sought assistance from Commissioner of Agriculture Andy Gipson to get rent-free space in large state owned facilities. Gipson offered space on the Mississippi Fairgrounds including the Coliseum, the Trademart and the Kirk Fordice Equine Center, which are close to the Hinds County Courthouse. Judges will have access to the Fairgrounds buildings when there are no previously scheduled events in those facilities.
CARES Act funds will pay for any setup costs, the electric bill and other pre-approved expenses above the normal costs for conducting a trial.
“We are able to accomplish this through the good efforts of those judges, and at no additional expense to the people of Hinds County,” Chief Justice Randolph said.
Chief Justice Randolph said, “I would like to express my appreciation for the actions by these judges. It is beyond commendable. All of them are taking extra steps to figure out how we can do this. I’m very proud of them going forward.”
“These are unusual times,” he said. “What we are doing is making necessary adjustments to protect the rights of all.”
Chief Justice Randolph commended the efforts of all judges throughout the state for “going above and beyond the call of duty to preserve and maintain our system of justice. The pandemic continues to create obstacles and challenges. The judges of our state have worked together to ensure public safety for all and to provide for the personal safety of the citizens who are called upon to participate in the judicial process.”