Flagler County hosts criminal jury trial; Canady notes safe practices in place for expanded court proceedings
Florida’s first criminal jury trial since the COVID-19 pandemic severely restricted in-person court operations began August 24 in a Flagler County courtroom.
Seventh Circuit Chief Judge Raul Zambrano said the trial was the result of a month-long effort by local court officials, the local Health Department, the Supreme Court, and others and made possible by a low number of coronavirus infections in Flagler County.
Judge Terrence Perkins presided over the felony case, State v. Johnson, which involved grand theft of a motor vehicle and fleeing/eluding at high speed.
“Resuming jury trials is an important milestone for Florida’s courts and the people we serve,” said Chief Justice Charles Canady. “Chief Judge Raul Zambrano and Circuit Judge Terence Perkins prepared carefully for the safe conduct of this proceeding in Flagler County, along with all the justice partners involved. I appreciate the care taken to follow evidence-based best practices for this trial and elsewhere around the state as courts continue to work diligently.”
The courts worked with the local Health Department to determine the best procedures for holding the trial and to get information about infections rates and information to provide to jurors. It also involved frequent contact with the Supreme Court.
“We had a long discussion with the chief justice on Friday [August 21] assuring him we were going to do this in the safest way we can,” said Zambrano, who also made it a point to meet with the jury pool. “One thing I told the jurors this morning, bluntly, is we will not compromise anyone’s safety in this process….
“We can’t do this alone, we have to have a lot of partners,” he added. “We also have to show the community we are making our very best effort to move forward in the best manner possible.”
Zambrano said Flagler was chosen for the trial because of its low ongoing infection rate plus the county has a relatively new courthouse with modern, spacious courtrooms that make the trial easier.
Seventh Circuit Court Administrator Mark Weinberg said jury summons were sent for Monday morning, and a second call was prepared for Monday afternoon, but turned out not to be needed. About 40 prospective jurors showed up, more than expected.
This was different from the start. Instead of a five or 10 minute juror orientation, Zambrano said that the initial presentation, which he supervised, lasted about 35 minutes and jurors were instructed on revised procedures and the extensive safety preparations, including the use of face masks and face shields in the courtroom, the availability of PPE and hand sanitizer and “also assuring them all of the protocols were in place to protect them.”
There was also a review of pandemic information and infection rates for Flagler County.
Only people involved in the trial were allowed in the courtroom and no more than 25 at any one time, as members of the jury pool were individually escorted in and out of the courtroom as necessary, Zambrano said.
“Anyone who was extra was not even allowed in the building,” he said.
The courtroom was configured to allow everyone to social distance, including the jurors and there was extra cleaning.
“We have plans for feeding the jury in the courthouse so they don’t have to leave the courthouse” during the day, Zambrano said. “As Judge Perkins said, you can’t turn around without bumping into a hand sanitizer.”
The trial is being streamed live on YouTube. Jury selection was completed by early afternoon and Assistant State Attorney Philip Bavington and Assistant Public Defender William Bookhammer were shortly thereafter making their opening statements. Bavington then began calling witnesses and making his case.
The trial, which is expected to last a day or two, adjourned at 5:15 p.m. with Bavington still presenting witnesses.
At the moment, there are no plans for a second jury trial, although Zambrano hopes other courts can learn from Flagler’s experience.
“We’re going to go back and reassess and if the [infection] numbers are such and we can maintain our protocols, maybe we’ll do another one,” he said. “We just want to see what we can learn from this one.”
While having the state’s first criminal jury trial is important, Zambrano said there’s still a long way to go for the courts.
“I wholeheartedly agree with the chief justice that people tend to let their guard down when things are going good,” he said. “I tend to believe the opposite, we have to step it up…and not let our guard down. We should be more aware and practice all of the safety protocols that the Health Department has given us.”
Canady said that Flagler County met the conditions outlined by the Supreme Court’s COVID-19 Workgroup and contained in court administrative orders.
“Improving health conditions in Flagler County meet the criteria adopted to protect the health of participants,” Canady said. “It’s welcome progress for the judicial branch and Florida, in step with improving conditions there and elsewhere in the state.”
There have been two previous civil jury trials, one in Miami-Dade County last month having the jurors, lawyers, judge, and court personnel in the courtroom with mask and face shields, and one conducted earlier this month in Jacksonville with jurors and others appearing remotely.
Under the workgroup’s direction, and in partnership with the Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers and The Florida Bar, a video and public education material for prospective jurors was created. It provides information about new procedures in place at courthouses and for people responding to summonses for jury service. The video can be seen at www.Steps2SafeCourts.org.