Safety Measures The Judge Took During The Pandemic Jury Trial

Transcription:

Brendan Lupetin:
What steps or measures did the court take or have to take between May and June of 2020 versus feeling like they were in a place to try it in August of 2020?

Peter Pentony:
The judge is incredible. Judge David Hammer in Jefferson County and he, and the clerk there, Laura Storm. They really take seriously the necessity of people being able to get their cases to trial. They understand that just has to be something that happens. And it’s not a back-burner issue. You know, the wheels of justice have to keep turning. So they really worked hard to come up with a protocol that was gonna let the litigants feel safe, let the lawyers feel safe, and most particularly allow the jurors to feel like they could come in and focus on deciding the case, rather than be worried about their own safety. So they did a lot of things that are unusual. The judges made real efforts to upgrade the sound system and some things. So because of its age, we weren’t able to actually choose the jury there.

Peter Pentony:
There was no room for it. So the judge and the clerk and the security staff worked out that we could do jury selection at a nearby civic center. So a couple of blocks from the courthouse. They had set up maybe 60 folding chairs on the basketball court. They’d put in a riser. We used the sound system that they usually use for basketball games and they brought the jurors in there, did a temperature scan as they came in, did the questionnaire for various symptoms, and then escorted everyone into assigned seats that were socially distanced. Everyone was masked the whole time for jury selection.

Brendan Lupetin:
How big was your vinire?

Peter Pentony:
I think we had about 40 people to get down to six jurors and two alternates. So it wasn’t bad. All of them except one showed up.  I think there had been a pretty significant effort made ahead of that to weed out anyone who was ill, in a risk-category, or otherwise concerned about being there.

Brendan Lupetin:
So I’m interested in that. What steps had the court taken to screen out people that were just going to be “no-go’s” if they showed up that day?

Peter Pentony:
Great question, the judge sent out a specific questionnaire, in addition to the typical juror questionnaire that laid out the plan for making it safe, the hygiene plan and protocols. But then also asked that they correspond with the clerk if they had any particular concerns. I don’t have any data for how many people responded, but by and large, the age range of the panel was probably 35 to only a few older than 55. Once we got through voir dire, the judge did allow whoever was speaking to remove his or her mask. So when I was examining a witness or giving my opening statement, my mask was off. I was far from the jury. I was far from the jury. I mean, the trade-off was, we were going to be set way back to avoid any potential air spread. But we were able to take our mask off.

Peter Pentony:
Likewise, the witness was allowed to remove his or her mask when testifying.  And so the court was great. The security gentlemen in the courtroom were awesome. They had these little covers that they put over the microphone, like little microphone condoms, and they put it on over the whole thing. And each person had their own cover that you put on the microphone. And as soon as someone left either the council podium or the witness stand, two of the security guys would come over, they would spray it all down, wipe it all off, and make sure it was sanitized before the next witness or lawyer approached that microphone. So with those precautions, we were allowed to take off the masks.

But I have hearing impairment. I rely on hearing aids, but also a lot on lip reading. So anytime that someone was masked, it was a real challenge for me. But we were required to be masked at all times, except when we were speaking. And anytime that we had our mask off to speak, we either needed to be at the podium, which as I said, was pretty far removed. I would say we are maybe as far as 30 feet from where the jury was sitting, and to give perspective, the court had basically turned the courtroom backwards. So the jury was sitting in the gallery where the public would normally sit, socially distanced and they were spread out and in risers up. The lawyers then sat — the defense sat in what would have been the jury box, and plaintiff’s side sat off to the side as well. So that we weren’t with our back to the judge, who stayed on the bench.

Peter Pentony:
So we were kind of to the side of everything. Because of where the witness stand was moved to, that meant that oftentimes the lawyers were behind the witness. So the judge gave us leeway to move anywhere in the courtroom we wanted, as long as we were socially distanced, to be able to have a vantage point of the witness while testifying and the counsel asking questions. So, I would say for 90% of the trial, when I wasn’t at the podium, I was working out of my lap, from a bench, or from the gallery, or from some side moving my chair around to the side. So there was a lot of moving around in the courtroom, and the judge encouraged it and he wanted to make sure that we were comfortable, that we were seeing the witness, that we were seeing what exhibit was being displayed.

Peter Pentony:
But there was some, there was some drawbacks to that. Obviously my partner and I were so far away from each other at times, and passing med notes and things like that, we just sorta had to get up and walk over to each other. I wasn’t with my client the whole time. Normally, you want to be sitting there, you want to be associated with them. I just had to leave him. He couldn’t go wandering around with me. So I had to leave him sitting where he was and go someplace else. And then objecting, because you were away from your microphone, you really had to stand up and project, so that the judge could hear what your objections were.

Brendan Lupetin:
That’s what I was going to ask you next, did for opening, closing examinations, did you always have to be speaking into a mic?

Peter Pentony:
We had to stay at the podium. The judge felt like that was the place where we could be sure that the jury could hear us because of the microphone. And because of the removal of the mask, the judge felt like that was far enough away that he could be comfortable and the jury could be comfortable. We weren’t, you know, spitting on him while we were giving a closing or something like that. So we were stuck at the podium.

Brendan Lupetin:
And did you mention that the jurors, who are now sitting out in the gallery that they had risers for some of them, so they were elevated?

Peter Pentony:
Yeah. The layout of the courtroom is such that the gallery goes up on tiers. That’s the style, it’s a big courtroom. So they were pretty far spread out from each other and they had good vantage point. They could see pretty well. We made sure that we were ready to blow up our exhibits really big though, because we knew somebody was going to be stuck in that back row.