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Federal court to resume jury trials after nine-month hiatus

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – There is a constant din of rushing air in the makeshift courtroom at the heart of federal court in Providence. And it’s music to the ears of U.S. District Judge William Smith.

“This room has the highest air turnover rate of any room in the courthouse,” Smith told Target 12. “The air is turned over 10 times per hour, while in some of the courtrooms the air is only turned over two or three times per hour.”

After consulting with a virologist at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, the air turnover rate was one of the top priorities when staff at the 100-year-old courthouse began mapping out a return to jury trials, something that hasn’t happened in nine months.

“We do have a little backlog of cases, and we’re really going to have a run on jury trials coming up,” Smith said.

The plan is to dip the court’s toes into jury trials beginning Oct. 3, starting with civil cases because they use only six jurors, with two alternates. Criminal cases require 12 jurors. 

“We have really taken getting back to normal, so to speak, in a staged manner,” Smith said. “We’ve been working almost entirely remotely since March – we’ve been able to do 80 to 90 percent of the functions of the court remotely using Zoom.” 

“We can do pretty much everything, but we can’t do a jury trial,” Smith said.

When potential jurors arrive later this month, they will have already filled out a health questionnaire on their mobile devices, which will pull up a code they scan at a terminal inside the courthouse. The same terminal then asks the potential jurors to step up so it can scan their faces to take their temperatures and make sure they are wearing a mask.

The trial will take place in what’s called the jury assembly room. The juror’s seats are staggered six feet apart, and the plaintiff’s and defendant’s tables are boxed off with plexiglass. as is the location where witnesses will give their testimony.

For sidebar conferences – where lawyers approach the bench to closely confer with the judge – the parties will leave the room and go into another nearby room, which also functions as a small kitchen for the courthouse.    

The air that turns over in the room passes through several filters, including a UV light filter. Chief Deputy Clerk Frank Perry said court officials were pleasantly surprised to find the air system already had the UV light filter installed.

“We went through this process to really look at the facility closely,” Perry said. “I think we’re in great shape considering the building we’re in this is over a 100-year-old building.”

Perry said a questionnaire was sent to potential jurors that included an inquiry on any medical conditions that would prevent them from serving.

“The pool that’s coming in is a very solid pool who understands the expectations,” said Perry. 

Trials are traditionally open to the public and Perry said that is not going to change moving forward. The court has been putting hearings on Zoom and will do so the same with trials. (Just like inside the courthouse, however, recording of remote hearings and trials is not permitted.)

“There will be information on our website for folks that are interested in observing the trial in the same way they have been observing hearings that can happen,” he said.

Smith said he was uneasy with the remote hearings at first – from plea agreements to sentencings – but found the Zoom proceedings “really effective.”

“In some ways your closer to the person, eye to eye, because the cameras are so close on the video screens and they’re not sitting way out in the courtroom,” Smith said. “There are a lot of little nuances during proceedings via video that are surprising in terms of comfort and the effectiveness of them.”

But his comfort with Zoom doesn’t extend to actual trials.

“There are some courts that have tried with some civil cases,” he said of using Zoom. “Weird things happen like jurors will get a phone call and walk out of the room.”

“At the end of the day jurors are being asked to judge the credibility of witnesses that testify before them and there is really nothing like seeing the witness in person,” he added. “Being able to assess the credibility of that witness I think there is something that is slightly missing in that respect when you’re doing it by video.”

Smith said he expects criminal trials to resume in January.

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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