The Trial Court of Massachusetts hadn’t summoned jurors since the pandemic prompted courthouses to close on March 14. That changed this week with the kickoff of a two-month test run of six-person jury trials.
Court administrators had postponed the return of jury trials more than a half-dozen times. An expected rise in COVID-19 infections over the holidays prompted the latest postponement, from Nov. 30 until after New Year’s Day.
“It’s a very difficult decision, but we can’t wait forever,” said the chief justice of the Trial Court, Paula M. Carey.
“Public safety is paramount,” she said. “But we’ve got to balance the right to a speedy trial on these cases, and the presumption of innocence.” The longer the delays, the more complicated the cases will become, she said.
Most of the 27 trials scheduled in the next two months are for criminal matters in District Court and Boston Municipal Court. If all goes well, more serious criminal cases would then be tried with 12-person juries.
When the pandemic hit, courts statewide were quick to switch to video conferences for many proceedings, including first appearances, arraignments, detentions, and motion and status hearings. Bench trials resumed over the summer. Gradually, courthouses reopened for limited business, including emergency matters. COVID-19 concerns, however, continued to keep jury trials on hold.
Of the trials scheduled for this week, one has already been moved because a lawyer tested positive for the coronavirus.
And because the setting of a trial date often leads the parties to settle, six civil cases that were scheduled to be heard in Middlesex County this week have been resolved.
Two civil cases were on Monday’s docket in Woburn Superior Court, and District Courts in Lowell and Plymouth tried two men accused of intoxicated driving.
The decision on whether to continue to hold trials will be informed by daily reports on infection rates, and consultations with an epidemiologist and other infectious disease specialists, Carey said.
Jury pools will be smaller, social distancing means that more than one courtroom will be required per trial, and witness boxes will be shielded by plexiglass and equipped with HEPA air purifiers. Ventilation has been upgraded in the courtrooms.
“We’re just hopeful that we will get enough jurors,” Carey said, adding that allowances would be made for those who are reluctant.
“If someone is uncomfortable as a juror and appearing in court,” Carey said, “they can postpone their service. We completely understand.”
Federal courts in Massachusetts went six months without jury trials before they resumed in early September. Since then, five cases have gone to trial. Despite the hiatus, there were two more federal trials in 2020 than in 2019, or 29 compared with 27. Still, a backlog is mounting.
Nearly a dozen defendants in the college admissions scandal saw their October and January trial dates delayed until April and beyond, said Elizabeth McCarthy, a spokeswoman for the US attorney’s office.
And the absence of a grand jury hindered investigations into other white-collar crimes, she said.
A year ago, former Fall River mayor Jasiel F. Correia II was looking at a May 4 trial date on investment fraud and extortion charges in US District Court. He still hasn’t gone to trial.
After his arrest in September 2019, Correia pleaded not guilty to extorting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from four marijuana vendors looking to open pot shops in Fall River. Correia, who is free on bond, saw his trial date change from May to September to Jan. 13 and finally to Feb. 22.
Prosecutors have filed a witness list, and the lawyers and judge are scheduled to tour a courtroom that has been modified with COVID-19 protections. When US District Judge Douglas P. Woodlock scheduled Correia’s three-week trial to begin Feb. 22, an alternate date of March 15 was set, just in case.
Meanwhile, in the state courts, Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins said the absence of a grand jury for much of the year was among “the most significant hurdles” for prosecutors in her office.
“The grand jury is the only means by which felony offenses, including homicides and serious acts of violence, can be indicted and brought to the court of appropriate jurisdiction,” Rollins said.
A grand jury is a randomly selected, secret panel of 23 people who serve for three months at a time. A grand jury hears evidence presented by prosecutors and decides if there is enough to support criminal charges. If so, the grand jury issues an indictment.
Without a grand jury to both hear evidence and recommend charges, the system falls into a quagmire. If indictments are stalled, so are arraignments, and so on.
“We continue to see backlogs in the grand jury and in pending criminal cases,” Rollins said. “As jury trials have been put on hold, other manners of resolution, such as pleas, also slowed.”
That’s a statewide phenomenon, according to Trial Court records.