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State courts again try to resume jury trials in a handful of cases

Clerk Joanna Maletti sanitized her hands while standing behind a plexiglass wall in a courtroom in District Court in Lowell during an earlier test run of jury trials last month.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The state court system on Tuesday began its second attempt to resume jury trials, three weeks after officials cut short an initial step toward restarting operations that had been disrupted by the pandemic.

Courthouses in Boston and Greenfield began welcoming jurors. Jury trials have been mostly suspended since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak last year. Bench trials, decided by judges, resumed last summer.

The suspension in jury trials has created a significant backlog in an already sluggish justice system. Though cases can move incrementally forward with pretrial hearings before a jury is seated, many are stacked up waiting to be tried. The longer a case lingers, the more likely victim and witness memories are to fade. Meanwhile, defendants who have been denied bail or who cannot pay have languished behind bars in spite of constitutional rights to a speedy trial.

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As the state edges back toward jury trials, the initial focus will be on cases where the defendant is not in custody. These are less serious cases, misdemeanors and litigation with lower stakes, giving court officials time to fine tune the trial process before moving on to felonies and matters of life and death.

The defense bar isn’t comfortable with the legal quagmire created by COVID-19.

“The welfare and health of the general society trumps your right to a speedy trial right now,” said Arthur Kelly, a criminal defense attorney in private practice.

While that makes sense on the whole, “it’s of little comfort for those waiting to have a jury decide,” Kelly said. “Their rights are secondary right now and that’s troubling.”

Last month, court officials put a test run for jury trials on hold after four trials that played out over two weeks. The purpose of the pause was to “review and analyze” how those first four trials went, a spokeswoman for the trial court system said at the time.

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There were no reports of anyone involved in the trials getting COVID-19, the courts spokeswoman, Jennifer Donahue, said.

The calendar for this week includes three trials beginning Tuesday in Greenfield, Donahue said.

“As part of a pilot, in the jury trial that begins today in Greenfield, some jurors are being impaneled remotely,” Donahue said.

Wednesday’s cases will be heard in Boston Municipal Court, Donahue said, followed by juvenile court on Thursday in Springfield.

Next week’s trials are scheduled in Boston, Woburn, Plymouth, and Fall River.

Most of the trials are being held “in locations where jury trials have not yet been conducted to identify any issues,” Donahue said.

It will be up to the Supreme Judicial Court to provide guidance on the next steps, she said.

The decision on whether to continue to hold trials would be informed by daily reports on infection rates, and consultations with an epidemiologist and other infectious disease specialists, Chief Justice of the Trial Court Paula M. Carey has said.

Until early January, the Trial Court of Massachusetts hadn’t summoned jurors since the pandemic prompted courthouses to close on March 14, 2020. Court administrators had postponed the return of jury trials more than a half-dozen times.


Tonya Alanez can be reached at tonya.alanez@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @talanez.