There will be no in-person jury trials in Flagler County until at least January 19 due to the very high incidence of coronavirus cases in the county. The county in the week ending last Saturday broke yet another record in confirmed cases for the previous seven days, with a total of 270, and a cumulative total exceeding 3,500. Fifty Flagler County residents have died of Covid-19 so far.
Raul Zambrano, chief judge for the Seventh Judicial Circuit, which includes Flagler, Volusia, St. Johns and Putnam counties, extended the suspension to Flagler County today. The suspension was already in effect in Putnam and St. Johns counties. Jury trials may proceed in Volusia County.
“This comes after review of relevant public health metrics associated with Covid-19 for the 5-week period ending December 26, 2020,” a release from the Seventh Judicial Circuit states. “The average number of tests with positive results remains somewhat elevated and the percentage of tests with positive results exceeds 10% in all three counties.”
Judges in Flagler have been holding court proceedings but mostly by Zoom. Some of the proceedings combine in-person presence and Zoom participation. Only a handful of trials have been held since the pandemic emergency shut down court operations in April and May.
Today Circuit Judge Terence Perkins held docket-sounding hearings for a slew of cases. Docket sounding is the last step before trial, when the actual trial is scheduled absent a plea or a resolution. In most instances, the cases were expected to be continued.
The challenge for the court is not so much the court proceedings themselves, which can be conducted with socially distanced attorneys, defendants and court staff, but the summoning of juries, which pose a problem when it comes time to socially distance. Picking a jury of six or 12 for a trial may require going through up to 100 potential jurors, with up to 40 or 50 jurors at a time in the courtroom for the “voir dire,” or jury selection, process. Cutting that down to 25 jurors, as was planned, can inordinately lengthen the jury selection process.
Once seated, jurors then must contend with a jury box not designed for socially distancing 12 jurors. Many times during a trial, and well before jury deliberations, the jury is sent back to its deliberation room to await proceedings in court that the jury must not hear. Jury rooms are windowless and small. In sum, the court is concerned mostly about the safety of jurors, though when it has summoned jury pools since the emergency, it has not had trouble getting a fairly good response.
Though vaccinations have begun, just 600 people in Flagler have been vaccinated so far, the overwhelming majority in the ranks of health care workers. The broader public will not start getting vaccinated until January, and even then, vaccinations will be limited to those 65 and over. Others will not be vaccinated before spring. Holiday gatherings and an ongoing third wave across the nation are conspiring to push case loads to record levels, with deaths across the nation approaching 350,000 since February.
“Suspensions may last longer if circumstances warrant,” the circuit said.