PROVIDENCE — The largest courtroom in Rhode Island has been ready for months. Jurors have been notified to appear.
In Courtroom 11 at the Licht Judicial Complex, plexiglass separates the judge, the court reporter, the witness stand, the lawyers, and the jury. Each juror even gets their own mini pods, like hockey penalty boxes inside the jury box, to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
So where is everyone?
It’s been more than a year since the last jury trial was convened in Rhode Island, where there usually are 30 to 50 civil and criminal jury trials each year. There were seven jury trials last year, but they ended abruptly in early March 2020, when the pandemic spread widely and judges worried about infections.
So the judiciary waited out the shutdowns and got ready to start again a few months later.
Bench trials — in which a judge, not a jury, renders a verdict — resumed, but despite preparations, jury trials still have not. And there’s no clear answer why.
At this rate, the presiding judge at the Superior Court expects that it will take a year for the trial pace to return to normal — provided there aren’t any more coronavirus surges, forcing another shutdown.
Superior Court Presiding Justice Alice B. Gibney alerted defense attorneys to let her know if there were problems getting a speedy trial, and she’d make it happen, said judiciary spokesman Craig Berke.
No one has, he said.
As for state prosecutors, “whenever the courts tell us that they are ready to proceed with jury trials, we are ready to proceed as well,” said Kristy dosReis, spokeswoman for Attorney General Peter F. Neronha.
Matthew Dawson, the president of the Rhode Island Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, says there’s been a reluctance to be the first to “jump in the pool.”
Last fall and into the winter, coronavirus cases were rising again, and “frankly, I don’t think anybody on any side — witnesses and jurors — wanted to do it,” Dawson said. “It’s not something anyone was looking forward to.”
But over the past several weeks, as more people are getting vaccinated, there’s been a sense that things will soon return to normal, he said.
“I think there’s been a good faith effort on all sides. The judiciary, the prosecution, the defense — everyone understands the big picture. Everyone’s health is in jeopardy, no one wants to get sick,” said Dawson. “But I think once the ball gets rolling ... we’ll get back on track.”
In Massachusetts, the state Supreme Judicial Court in January allowed jury trials to resume on a limited basis, with six-member juries presiding over fairly simple criminal and civil cases at nine courthouses. In the next phase, 12-member juries will be able to hear high-priority cases, but no date has been set.
But many Massachusetts courthouses don’t have adequate space or ventilation to meet coronavirus protocols, so court officials are looking at unconventional locales, including wedding venues, a former movie theater, and hotel function rooms. Suffolk County court officials have asked if they can use the John Joseph Moakley federal courthouse; it’s a large, modern facility that has been retrofitted for the pandemic.
In Rhode Island, the first criminal trial was supposed to occur early last fall, with a man accused of child molestation representing himself. After 70 people showed up for jury selection, the defendant balked and asked the judge for more time to prepare his own case, Berke said. The defendant later ended up taking a plea deal.
However, that gave the staff at Superior Court a chance to survey the jury pool to find out whether they were comfortable with the COVID-19 precautions at the courthouse. Fifty-six of the jurors said they were either somewhat comfortable or very comfortable with the set-up, Berke said. Just 13 were not.
Those results were surprising. People are ready to serve on a jury, Berke said.
The restart has been very, very slow.
So far, four criminal trials and two civil trials are scheduled from the end of April through June; 11 new civil trials are scheduled for the fall, and another, a medical malpractice case, is scheduled for June 2022.
Civil cases are backed up. The first civil trial was supposed to start on Monday, with a lawsuit against Davol Inc. and C.R. Bard Inc. for injuries allegedly caused by their hernia mesh implant, but it’s been continued to a later date.
The first criminal trial since the pandemic began is scheduled for later this month, that of a Westerly man accused of stabbing a Connecticut man to death in January 2018.
The unusual year also offset some of the usual demand on the judiciary system.
Typically, the number of criminal cases charged through Superior Court has averaged about 5,000 to slightly more than 6,000 per year in the past decade; there was a jump to more than 8,700 in 2019 because of a backlog under former attorney general Peter Kilmartin.
But in 2020, with the state shut down for much of the year because of the pandemic, police made fewer arrests. There were just 5,111 criminal cases charged at Superior Court, the lowest since 2012, according to data from the attorney general’s office.
The courts and lawyers also worked to steer more first-time and low-level offenders out of the criminal justice system and into so-called diversion programs, such as mental health and drug treatment, community service, and paying victim restitution to have charges dismissed.
Last year, there were 998 cases referred to diversion programs, including 488 that were referred before being criminally charged in Superior Court, according to the attorney general’s office. There were 696 diversion cases in 2019, which was also a 50 percent increase from 2018.
Whenever the first jury trial begins, all sides are prepared for a “new normal” in the courtroom. There will be two courtrooms connected by closed-circuit TV to be used for jury selection, and another large courtroom for jury deliberations. The jurors’ day will end at 1 p.m., with a short break and no lunch, to limit the length of time they are together.
“We’re ready to go,” said Berke, adding, “We’ve been ready to go.”