Jury trials move to arenas and auditoriums to protect against COVID-19

June 19, 2020

A middle school basketball court in Tishomingo County will become a temporary Circuit Court next week.

Middle school basketball court in Tishomingo County as Temporary Circuit Court

Jury selection is scheduled to get underway Tuesday, June 23, at the Iuka Middle School gymnasium after Circuit Judge Kelly Mims and the Tishomingo County Board of Supervisors found the courtroom of the Tishomingo County Courthouse to be too small to safely accommodate a large crowd required for jury selection.

Warren County Circuit Judge M. James Chaney Jr. last week moved jury selection to the Vicksburg City Auditorium, then conducted two days of trial at the Warren County Courthouse. Another trial scheduled for June 29 also will begin with jury selection at the City Auditorium. Around the state, judges are using public arenas and auditoriums to get their trial dockets moving after the COVID-19 pandemic forced cancellation of jury trials in late March through April and May.

During the pandemic, courts have conducted in-court hearings for pleas, revocations and motion hearings in compliance with the Constitutional requirement that courts remain open. Many courts used video conferencing for hearings. But for almost three months, most courts were unable to conduct jury trials because of the health risks associated with summoning a large number of people into a courtroom for jury duty.

Judge Mims on Friday, June 19, oversaw the arrangement of tables and chairs to create a courtroom setting on the gymnasium floor in the Iuka Middle School Activity Building. “We want to make sure we are taking all precautions we can and we have a safe and adequate facility to protect the citizens,” he said.

The more than 100 people expected to show up on Tuesday will be seated in the bleachers during jury selection. The panel of 12 jurors plus alternates will move to chairs spaced apart on the floor before opening statements and testimony get underway.

The small size of the jury box and the jury deliberation room at the Tishomingo County Courthouse were among factors driving the move. “We decided the jury box was not adequate for us to socially distance,” Judge Mims said.

Judge Mims and the Tishomingo County Board of Supervisors issued orders on June 18 designating the Iuka Middle School Activity Building as the temporary courthouse. The Board in its order said that it must balance the public health risks related to COVID-19 with the Constitutional responsibility of the Circuit Court to conduct court proceedings while complying with Centers for Disease Control guidelines and recommendations by state officials during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Board said, “As such, the June Circuit Court Term cannot be held at the Tishomingo County Courthouse Courtroom, and an alternate location is required to ensure COVID-19 safe guidelines are ... followed.” The Board of Supervisors looked to the Tishomingo County School Board for help, and the School Board agreed to having court at Iuka Middle School.

Brian Scott Berryman is scheduled to go on trial on June 23 in Tishomingo County Circuit Court on a charge of possession of a firearm. A motion hearing is scheduled for Monday on Berryman’s motion for a speedy trial. Berryman seeks dismissal of charges.

In Warren County last week, after a three day trial, a jury acquitted Lance Maniel on June 17 on charges of possession of less than 2 grams of methamphetamine and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

About 120 people showed up for jury service at the Vicksburg City Auditorium, said Court Administrator Lee Ann Stuart. About 130 people were excused beforehand without having to come to the auditorium. A questionnaire that accompanied jury summonses set out statutory excuses as well as COVID-19 related excuses. People who received Warren County jury summonses were able to answer the questionnaire via the court’s website or by fax or mail. That helped prevent people who might be sick from coming to court.

Judge Chaney also sent a letter to the prospective jurors, explaining why the auditorium would be used and the safety measures that were implemented, including using masks and social distancing. When prospective jurors arrived, each one’s temperature was taken, and they were questioned about possible illness or COVID-19 exposure. Jurors wore masks and were seated at least six feet apart.

The Warren County Board of Supervisors lent their boardroom for use by the jury to take breaks during trial, and for deliberations. The traditional jury room, a long and narrow room with a table, was too small for social distancing.

Judge Chaney said, “It’s a little more work when you are out of your regular home place. Everyone pitched in and we were able to do it in a safe manner.”

The next trial in Warren County Circuit Court is scheduled for June 29. Prospective jurors have been summoned to appear at the Vicksburg City Auditorium. Ed Beverly Watts Jr. is set for trial on a charge of aggravated assault. Proceedings will move to the Courthouse after the jury is selected.

The City of Vicksburg provided the use of the City Auditorium, former site of the annual Miss Mississippi Pageant, free of charge. Judge Chaney and the Warren County Board of Supervisors signed orders designating the Vicksburg City Auditorium as the temporary courthouse.

The Clarksdale Expo Center is expected to be used to pick a jury for the start of trial in Coahoma County Circuit Court in July, said Circuit Judge Charles Webster. “Because of the size of the initial venire, our plan is to use an off-site Expo Center to qualify, voir dire and pick the jury. We will be able to spread out a large number of people,” he said. After the jury is selected, the trial will move to the courthouse. Circuit Judge Albert Smith said, “We will use social distancing and be able to provide masks and hand cleaning stations for both places.”

Jones County Junior College has agreed to provide space for a trial scheduled for July 29. Circuit Judge Dal Williamson is scheduled to conduct the trial in the Technology Building on campus. The Jones County Board of Supervisors approved the site as an alternative courtroom.

Hinds County Circuit Court judges have discussed the possibility of using an auditorium or conference center for a trial scheduled for July 20, said Senior Circuit Judge Tomie Green. Plans haven’t been finalized.

Some judges also looked to alternative sites for grand jury proceedings.

The Prentiss County Agri Center in Booneville will serve as a temporary courtroom on Monday, June 22, for selection of a new grand jury, said Circuit Judge Michael P. Mills Jr. After the grand jury panel is selected, the grand jury will move to the Circuit Courtroom at the Prentiss County Courthouse for closed-door proceedings.

Judge Chaney in Warren County, Circuit Judge Joseph Loper in Winston County and Circuit Judges Michael Taylor and David Strong in Lincoln and Pike counties moved grand jury proceedings from the regular grand jury room to a closed courtroom for social distancing when they convened grand juries in May.

The Mississippi Supreme Court between mid-March and mid-May issued a dozen emergency administrative orders addressing issues related to COVID-19, balancing the Constitutional requirement for courts to remain often with safety precautions needed to avoid spread of the coronavirus. The Supreme Court granted trial judges authority to postpone cases dependent upon local circumstances during the pandemic. Emergency Administrative Order 2, issued March 15, authorized judges to postpone jury trials until mid-May.

Circuit Judge James Kitchens had a murder trial scheduled to begin the next day, March 16, in Clay County Circuit Court. Screening of jurors began in the parking lot. Judge Kitchens denied Shundray Johnson’s motion for continuance on March 17. Judge Kitchens wrote in his order, “The current jury is spread out from one another, has access to hand sanitizer and antibacterial soap, and recesses in a secondary, large courtroom. The courthouse janitorial services are cleaning the courtroom during lunch breaks, at the end of the day and before Court each morning. The Court is taking every precaution we can while still maintaining the Defendant’s Constitutional right to a jury trial.”

Johnson’s attorneys appealed. The Supreme Court rejected Johnson’s motion for continuance on March 18. Testimony was underway when Johnson pleaded guilty to two counts of first degree murder on March 18. Johnson was sentenced to two consecutive life terms.

The Supreme Court, in consultation with state health officers, examined epidemiological data in its efforts to ensure that all courts remained open and all citizens’ Constitutional rights were protected. As more empirical data was made available, the Supreme Court permitted local authorities to begin summoning jurors. Emergency Administrative Order 11, issued by the Supreme Court on May 7, authorized courts in 41 counties with one or fewer COVID-19 deaths per month to summons jurors to report on or after May 18. All other counties were directed to summon jurors no earlier than June 15.

Panola County was the first to conclude a jury trial in the state after the Supreme Court authorized jurors to be summoned. Circuit Judge Smith Murphey V presided over a trial at the Batesville Civic Center June 1-3. Judge Murphey and the Panola County Board of Supervisors entered orders designating the Civic Center as the temporary courthouse. Jurors distanced across stadium seats heard testimony from an arena that ordinarily serves as the venue for concerts, motorcycle and monster truck shows and rodeos, On June 3, the jury convicted Clinton Winters on a charge of possession of methamphetamine.