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SJC orders halt to all jury trials in Mass. courts while some police cut direct contact with citizens

The battle against the spread of the coronavirus moved into law enforcement and Massachusetts courthouses on Friday as the state’s high court ordered a halt to new jury trials until April 21. Meanwhile, some police departments are terminating non-emergency in-station visits from the public for the immediate future.

In two orders issued Friday, the Supreme Judicial Court ordered a temporary halt to new jury trials in both criminal and civil cases and put a freeze on grand juries, which are used by prosecutors to bring charges in the most serious violent crimes. The court also ordered trials where juries have already been selected to continue to a verdict in both criminal and civil cases.


The second order authorized officials at the state’s more than 100 courthouses to close their doors to anyone who symptomatic of Covid-19, the illness caused by coronavirus, or who may have been in contact with someone confirmed to have the virus.

“Persons attempting to enter a courthouse or other state court facility in violation of this order will be denied entry by security,” the court said in a statement.

Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants, who approved the changes in court procedure, said in a statement the termination of a critical part of the judicial system was necessary in light of the World Health Organization’s declaration that the spread of the Covid-19 has become a pandemic.

“We are taking these measures to balance the need to protect the health of court personnel, those who visit our courthouses, and the general public, while attempting to continue court operations to the extent practicable,” Gants said in a statement. “This is a rapidly changing situation and we are prepared to take further steps as needed.”

Some court officials were skeptical that court personnel would be equipped to determine which visitors should be barred from entering courthouses.


“Who is going to decide who should be left out?” asked one court official. “We have people coming in now saying they have coronavirus and threatening to touch everything. Most of them just have mental health issues.”

Cape and Island District Attorney Michael O’Keefe said in a telephone interview Friday the cessation of trials does not mean his office — or law enforcement — has stopped working.

"The court has cancelled some trials, but we did not shut down our operations ...We have plenty to do,'' said O’Keefe. "We are going to continue to work unless someone is sick [then] we want them to stay home. "

O’Keefe, one of the longest serving district attorneys, said that concern over Covid-19 will one day end.

“This too shall pass,” he said. “It’s a very troubling issue, but we certainly have faced troubling issues as a society before. We will get through this."

Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins has ordered prosecutors to seek a 60-day continuance on criminal cases where the defendant is not in jail. Rollins’ office will work with defense attorneys in cases where their clients are in custody to avoid court appearances, if possible.

Rollins also signaled her intent to prosecute anyone targeting Asian-Americans.

“We will not allow this pandemic to unleash an epidemic of bigotry and hate,” she said in a statement Thursday. “We are allies in this fight against bigotry and we will hold anyone who commits a hate crime accountable.”


Some police agencies are also changing the way they interact with the public. Newburyport police on Friday said they will no longer allow citizens to walk into the station and have face-to-face contact with officers and civilian employees.

“In order to continue providing the best police services to the Newburyport community, the Newburyport PD will be limiting our face-to-face interactions when possible,” the department said in a statement Friday.

The department is suspending walk-in services for fingerprinting, vehicle identification checks, police records requests, firearms licensing and drop off of prescriptions no longer needed by a resident

“We are concerned with the health and well-being of our staff as well as the public we serve," the department statement said. "As this virus continues to spread our goal is to maintain a healthy police force for the continuation of services without resorting to contingency plans.”

Suffolk Superior criminal court clerk Maura Hennigan said the court has up to 20 jury trials scheduled and will have to postpone all of those where a jury has not already been chosen.

“The court system is the third branch of government and is really important. It deals with people’s freedom and makes sure victims receive the justice that they deserve. But this is an extraordinary time and we have to put the public health and safety first," she said.

Like other court officials, Hennigan said it will be difficult for the courts to bar possibly infected people from courthouses.

“This is self reporting,” she said. "Unless someone looks physically ill, how would anyone know?”


John R. Ellement can be reached at john.ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe. Andrea Estes can be reached at andrea.estes@globe.com. Tonya Alanez can be reached at tonya.alanez@globe.com or 617-929-1579. Follow her on Twitter @talanez.