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Blair empanels first juries in months

Potential jurors ‘had great attitudes’ through process

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Blair County empaneled two juries Monday for the first time since March when criminal court trials were canceled due to the developing coronarvirus pandemic.

Seated behind a recently installed clear acrylic shield, Judge Daniel J. Milliron lowered his facial mask to ask the summoned jurors, including those at the rear of the county’s largest courtroom, if they could hear him.

After being told that they could, Milliron posed the same question, through computer video/audio connections, to summoned jurors in a room across the hall and to summoned jurors in a basement public meeting room.

After receiving assurance of their ability to hear him, the judge proceeded to introduce a revised jury selection process aimed at keeping the legal system moving during a pandemic.

“This is Blair County’s first jury selection since the pandemic,” Milliron told 64 potential jurors who showed up for the morning jury selection where 16 were picked to return for a four-day trial from Aug. 11-14.

In the afternoon, another jury was seated from 56 summoned, for a two-day trial starting Monday.

Today through Friday, additional jurors are to be selected for trials also scheduled in August.

To lessen the potential exposure to COVID-19, the county seated potential jurors at least 6 feet apart from each other within their assigned rooms. In addition, each juror wore a facial mask.

President Judge Elizabeth Doyle, who was busy with a custody case on Monday, said she was pleased to hear that both juries had been selected.

“Everybody told me the jurors had great attitudes and the process went well,” Doyle said. “It sounds like Judge Milliron hit a home run on this first day.”

Milliron moved the selection process along during the morning and afternoon sessions. He had few sidebars with the attorneys involved in the cases. Jurors mostly answered questions from their seats, instead of choosing the option of speaking privately with the judge.

When jurors started offering reasons as to why they should be excluded from the selection process, Milliron was generally cautious. For jurors with work-related and caretaker responsibilities, Millirion initially delayed action, then granted those requests after seeing that other summoned jurors were available and willing to serve.

Those dismissed from jury duty included a woman who reported having close contact with a co-worker scheduled to be tested for COVID-19 exposure.

A man seated at the back of the large courtroom was also dismissed after telling Milliron about “the echo” in the courtroom, which underwent a major restoration effort last year.

“I could hear,” he said. “But I couldn’t always understand what was being said.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the county’s jury selection process generally involved summoning about 300 jurors for a one-day process that could result in selecting as many as five juries.

The process typically involves three judges, with one reviewing a list of pending trials and taking pleas from defendants backing away from that option.

Two additional judges, meanwhile, presided over jury selection procedures that required jurors to be moving to and from the courtrooms.

In preparation for the revised jury selection process, Judge Jackie Bernard on Friday managed a review of pending trials. She and Doyle also addressed pleas from defendants indicating they were no longer interested in jury trials.

As for the future of the revised jury selection process, Doyle said it will be under consideration.

“Anytime something goes well, we think about doing the same thing again,” she said.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.

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