A year after the pandemic upended the state’s court system, creating a backlog of cases that could take years to address, jury trials will soon resume in some unconventional settings. An elegant wedding venue in Randolph, where a nightclub has been outfitted with portable cells. A former movie theater in Springfield, a Holiday Inn in Pittsfield. Function rooms at a Cape Cod resort that features a water park.
With many courthouses lacking adequate space or ventilation to meet coronavirus guidelines, court officials are scrambling to find locations where trials can be held safely in the coming months, with space for social distancing taking clear priority over ambience. In Suffolk County, court officials have approached their federal counterparts about holding state criminal trials at the John Joseph Moakley US Courthouse, a large, modern facility that has been retrofitted during the pandemic.
“We are going to be trying a case in a banquet hall,” said Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey, noting that the county’s first jury trial in more than a year is expected to be held in April at Lombardo’s in Randolph. “It’s going to take two or three years to get out from under the backlog. And it’s going to take longer if we don’t have alternative sites.”
Morrissey said his office has more than 20 murder cases awaiting trial, and about 250 second-offense drunk driving cases. Yet many of the county courthouses are old and deteriorating, with poor ventilation, and none have been cleared for jury trials. Lombardo’s will provide short-term relief, but more alternative sites are needed, he said. He has urged the court to consider outdoor sessions and lease space at the Sons of Italy hall in Quincy.
“It’s not only that defendants have their right to have their case heard, but victims deserve justice,” Morrissey said.
Randy Gioia, deputy chief counsel of the public defender division of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, a state agency that provides lawyers for indigent defendants, said he supported efforts to conduct jury trials at alternative sites “as long as the dignity of the courtroom is preserved.”
State court officials could not say how many criminal trials have been put on hold since last March. But Gioia said about 3,500 juries a year are typically impaneled for criminal cases in Massachusetts. Since jury trials resumed in January, there have been 19 criminal and three civil jury trials, according to Jennifer Donahue, a spokeswoman for the trial court.
Gioia said the courts must find ways to increase capacity, a process that will require more funding.
“We need to get back to jury trials,” he said. “You can have COVID restrictions, but you’ve got to make sure the restrictions aren’t diminishing the rights of the accused people.”
Defense lawyers and prosecutors said it’s critical to set definitive trial dates because that’s when cases get resolved, often with an agreement that avoids a trial.
The courts suspended jury trials statewide a year ago to slow the spread of the virus. In January, the state’s highest court allowed them to resume on a limited basis, with six-member juries presiding over short and fairly simple criminal and civil cases at nine courthouses. No date has been set for the next phase, which will allow 12-member juries to hear high-priority cases, particularly those involving defendants being held on serious charges as they await trial.
“We’re going to have to go to 12-person juries if you’re going to address the backlog,” said Gioia, noting that it would be rare for anyone facing serious charges to waive their right to have their case decided by 12 jurors. “You’re really taking a risk to go with a six-person jury.”
Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey said that six-member jury trials are being held at courthouses with adequate ventilation systems and the space required for social distancing based on evaluations by epidemiologists and other specialists.
“We are working hard to provide access to justice by expanding jury trials to off-site locations in counties where they are needed,” she said in a statement. “The Trial Court is committed to the safety of its employees, court users, and jurors. Additionally, we are mindful of the constitutional rights of all individuals involved.”
The court has signed a four-month lease with Lombardo’s for $368,940; a 3½-month lease with the Cape Codder Resort & Spa in Hyannis for $170,323; and one-year leases with the Holiday Inn in Pittsfield for $854,100, the former Eastfield Mall Cinemas site in Springfield for $715,800, and a former courthouse in Greenfield for $1,049,314. Trials are scheduled to begin at some of the sites in April.
At Lombardo’s, where a stunning chandelier above a grand staircase has served as the backdrop for wedding and prom photos for decades, two spacious ballrooms have been converted to courtrooms. There’s an elevated platform for the judge, flanked by the American and Massachusetts flags, and a designated area for jurors. A metal detector is now positioned at the front door to screen visitors.
“You have two beautiful chandeliers hanging in the middle of a courtroom,” the venue’s general manager, David Lombardo, said with a chuckle. Still, the space does look like courtrooms, he said, although LED lights that change colors, if desired, lend a bit of a reality TV vibe.
“We’ll provide what they want: a nice, safe space,” he said.
Lombardo said it’s been a devastating year for the events industry and the lease helps both the state and the family-owned business, which can start generating revenue after being closed for so long. On the weekends, Lombardo’s will be able to host events, he said.
In Suffolk County, the only state courthouse approved for six-member jury trials is the Edward W. Brooke building in Boston. Court officials have been looking at a number of alternatives and are in “active discussions” with federal court officials about holding trials at the Moakley courthouse, Donahue said.
“Any additional capacity for jury trials would help,” said Matthew Brelis, a spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins. But even with additional courtroom space, “there are a finite number of judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys, so it will be some time before the system is back to normal,” he said.
Rob Farrell, clerk of the US District Court for Massachusetts, said the court has held six trials since September at its three courthouses, following strict precautions. None resulted in a transmission of the virus. The courthouse in Boston has four criminal courtrooms and two civil courtrooms that have been reconfigured to meet social distancing guidelines; a fifth will be ready by month’s end.
“We recognize the critical nature of the backlog at the state courts,” he said. “Both state court and federal court share the same goal and mission, which is to provide justice to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and we’ll do whatever we can to help the state perform that duty.”
Acting US Attorney Nathaniel Mendell said the office currently has 78 criminal cases scheduled for trial through the end of next year. But under social distancing guidelines, there are no federal courtrooms large enough to conduct trials involving more than one defendant.
“The most complicated question would be when to resume multidefendant trials,” Mendell said. “Those present a lot of COVID issues. Those are also the cases where the federal interest is at its greatest and the most defendants and victims are also involved.”