There are very few aspects of our society that the advent of COVID-19 has not turned completely upside-down and created a future full of uncertainties for, and jury trials are no exception. The right to be tried by a jury of one’s peers has long been a fundamental American right, enshrined in the 6th Amendment to our Constitution. However, the situation presented by the coronavirus pandemic has made the mechanics of actually conducting a jury trial a serious logistical challenge for courts to overcome.
The use of social distancing combined with the provision of sanitizing products, plexiglass shields and facemasks within the courthouse are but one facet of the overall issue. Other logistical issues courts face include the size of juries themselves and provisioning for the individual jurors. For example, to insure adequate distancing Albany County is currently spreading out the reporting times for those summoned to Grand Jury in order to create smaller panels. Additionally, the jurors are now allowed to bring their own food and drink with them.
Moving forward, it seems likely that New York courts will take some procedural cues from those states which have resumed in-person jury trials. One new method of insuring adequate social distancing during jury selection has been to simply move the selection process to a larger venue to better spread out the prospective jurors. In Mississippi, jury selections in the city of Vicksburg have taken place in a city auditorium, while the jury deliberations took place in a large boardroom.
Another issue that may become more prominent if there is another spike in coronavirus cases is for the courts to adequately reassure potential jurors of their safety. Providing such assurances could range from simple measures such as adding a list of safety protocols being followed to the courts website and to jury summonses, to more complex measures such as narrowing down the jury pool remotely by dealing with hardship requests and other opt-out measures before the jurors travel to the courthouse. It has also been suggested that taking steps such as these will also help to insure that jury pools are representative of the diversity of communities, as members of communities of color who have been hit hardest by the pandemic might otherwise be less willing to serve on a jury out of fear of potentially contracting the virus.
The most significant change that will likely become a fixture of future jury trials is an increased reliance on technology. The social distancing required by the global pandemic transformed the world of business and family gatherings overnight, with teleconference services such as Zoom gaining millions of new subscribers in the span of a few months. Moving forward, there will likely be a heavy demand for the development of software that has secure enough encryption to allow a jury trial to be conducted wholly online. While the future use of such technological implementations is certain, whether a physical separation of all those involved will change the fundamental nature of jury trials and deliberations remains to be seen.