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Judge cancels selection of juries

‘It is not safe’ to ask citizens to serve amid expected virus surge

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Blair County President Judge Elizabeth Doyle has canceled criminal court jury selections for January and February because of the recent increase in the COVID-19 infection and mortality rates.

“I just don’t think it’s safe,” the judge stated in an interview late Tuesday morning, following a meeting of the Blair County commissioners in which one of the items presented for discussion was an agreement with Fullington Trailways LLC to transport prospective jurors to and from the Antique Depot in Duncansville to the courthouse for jury selections in 2021.

Commissioners Bruce Erb, Laura Burke and Amy Webster are scheduled to approve the agreement during a meeting this afternoon.

The agreement will include a provision to pay Fullington $305 per bus, per day, for jury transportation.

The board approved a similar agreement with Fullington to provide juror transportation services during a three-day period last October at a projected cost of $4,270.

Erb said after the meeting that the budgeted figure for 2021 juror transportation was just under $8,000.

During the Tuesday meeting, the commissioners reviewed multiple issues that included: the purchase of a mixer and carts for the delivery of hot meals to county inmates, improvements to County Road 101 through Claysburg, a Claysburg bridge project and an emergency management grant application for mosquito control in 2021.

The board will act on those proposals at their 1:30 p.m. meeting today.

Burke — the commissioners’ liaison to the judiciary — said during Tuesday’s meeting that she received an email from court administration informing board members of the cancellation of criminal court juries for January and February.

Doyle said she consulted with Blair County’s other judges, the emergency management director, attorneys on the Criminal Justice Efficiency Team, the county’s jury coordinator, local physicians, the court administrator, the commissioners and the sheriff.

“Surrounding counties were also consulted with Centre County and Huntingdon County foregoing jury selections until March 2021,” Doyle’s announcement stated.

She also will be issuing an order suspending Pennsylvania Rule 600 — the state’s speedy trial rule.

Doyle stated, “I have decided as President Judge that it is not safe or appropriate to ask Blair County citizens to come serve for jury selection in January or jury trial in early February.”

While Doyle said “nobody’s happy” about the cancellation of jury trials, the criminal trial list for Blair stands at 1,800 cases, which is a “high normal.”

Blair County has kept the cases flowing through the system fairly well during the COVID-19 pandemic, including a large number of jury trials during the past few months, Doyle said.

Also, Doyle explained that courts have adopted a suggestion by Judge Wade A. Kagarise to schedule two consecutive weeks of criminal jury trials and a week for civil jury trials.

Blair recently has not had many civil jury trials, which means that if cases scheduled for civil court are settled, that third week can be used for criminal trials.

She stated that because of the rising number of deaths from the coronavirus, the pandemic could weigh on the minds of potential jurors, particularly in view of a predicted post-Christmas surge. She doesn’t want jurors to feel that type of pressure.

Her goal when it comes to jurors is to “keep them safe, keep them comfortable, then proceed to jury selection.”

While the pandemic continues to be a problem in Blair County, Public Safety Director Mark Taylor said in the last week, the number of cases has started to decline, the positivity rate has dropped and the number of individuals hospitalized is down following a surge after the Thanksgiving holiday.

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