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Blair jury selection undergoes changes

County to call smaller groups of potential jurors for trials

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Blair County will introduce a new method for selecting juries later this month by summoning smaller groups of potential jurors to report on one of five days.

The plan has been initiated with an eye on resuming criminal court jury trials in August. The court’s last jury trials, scheduled in March, were canceled over COVID-19 concerns.

Jury summons for August trials were recently mailed to county residents advising them when to report during the week of July 27, Court Administrator Janice Meadows said this week.

In a follow-up letter to summoned jurors, President Judge Elizabeth Doyle offered assurance of measures to keep them safe during the selection process.

“Your jury selection will be performed with the utmost attention to your safety and well-being during the public health emergency from COVID-19,” the judge wrote.

Safety measures include assemblying smaller groups of potential jurors — about 50 to 60 — who will be able to practice social distancing at the courthouse, with the assistance of barriers put up in the courtroom.

The court is also advising jurors that a mask or face covering will be required.

Jurors should bring their own so the county’s supply can be conserved, Doyle said.

Those unable to wear any kind of facial covering are being advised to inform Vickie Smith, jury coordinator, of their condition so they can be rescheduled for a future selection.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Blair County typically picked several criminal court juries within a day by summoning several hundred people.

After arriving at the courthouse, those summoned were divided into groups and directed to different courtrooms, where they usually sat shoulder-to-shoulder while responding to questions from attorneys preparing to take the case to trial.

Depending on the number of juries needed, the traditional jury selection process generally lasted through late afternoon and sometimes into the evening.

One advantage for jurors who join in this month’s selection process, Smith said, will be less time.

Those being summoned, she said, have been asked to report for either a morning or an afternoon session on their selection day.

Before deciding to try the new selection method, Meadows said the court considered moving the traditional selection process to the Blair County Convention Center.

The convention center offers considerable space where social distancing could be observed, Meadows said, but it was ruled out because of the court’s record-keeping requirements.

By summoning jurors in smaller groups, she said, the jurors should be able to sit at least 6 feet apart, the common social distancing recommendation.

The smaller groups should be made up of about 50 to 60 potential jurors, she said, which is generally enough to seat a panel of 12 and two alternates.

As for when selected jurors will be required to report in August and how long, that depends on the trial for which they’re selected and how long the trial is scheduled to last.

In her letter, Doyle encouraged those summoned for jury service to respond.

“I realize that under normal circumstances, jury duty can be an inconvenience to daily life — and these are atypical times,” Doyle wrote.

The judge quoted John Adams: “Representative government and trial by jury are the heart and lungs of liberty” to stress the importance of jury service, a fundamental constitutional element.

“Despite the changes to everyday life from COVID-19, the duty still exists to ensure access to the courts,” she wrote.

The judge also offered a reminder that all jurors appearing for jury selection, whether selected or not, will be excused from further summons for two years.

Those excused can be summoned again and the county, in late August, will be summoning jurors for criminal court trials in September. It’s also anticipated that jurors will be summoned again in September and November.

“We understand people are going to have some concerns, but we are hopeful that this works out,” Meadows said.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.

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