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Local jury trials resume with social distancing during pandemic

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Posted at 6:48 PM, Jul 31, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-31 22:04:57-04

While you can't sit in the stands at sporting events these days, you can take a seat in the courtroom.

Jury summons are being issued again across the Central Coast.

Lisa Morais was one of the first jurors in San Luis Obispo County to serve on a jury trial since the courts reopened to the public.

"It was just a little bit of a surprise [to receive the summons] but I just kinda rolled with it," Morais said.

Before potential jurors come to the courthouse, they're encouraged to fill out a survey that asks about hardships and risks for COVID-19.

Then, the process starts in the jury assembly room sitting in socially distanced seats before making it to the courtroom.

"Well, things are quite different. Where we used to sequester our jurors inside the well, they're now spread out throughout the courtroom. We have people spread out, witnesses testifying behind glass and everyone is wearing masks so facial expressions can sometimes be a bit harder to see," explained San Luis Obispo County Superior Court Judge Matthew Guerrero.

While testifying, witnesses are directed to take off their masks while everyone else keeps theirs on.

Morais says the judge and the attorneys made sure the jurors felt comfortable at all times, even while deliberating.

"I saw the extra steps that they took even when we went to deliberate. They had a room big enough for us to socially distance ourselves and we had as much wipes as we needed. If we ever felt uncomfortable at all, we could say something," Morais explained.

Judge Guerrero says it's extremely important to continue to have people be a part of these trials.

"People forget the judicial system is the third branch of government. We cannot exist without the people. It is we the people at all stages of government," he said.

So far, two jury trials have been completed with these news rules with a third one now underway.

The courthouse says they expect to be broadcasting trials on the county's website by Monday. This will allow people to watch proceedings from home.

In Santa Barbara County, Judicial Services Manager Mark Hanson says they've conducted one jury trial since the courts reopened.

New guidelines in the Santa Barbara Courthouse system include:

  • All persons - jurors, judges, attorneys, witnesses, staff and visitors - entering a court facility must consent to having their temperature checked prior to screening and must wear a mask and practice social distancing the entire time they are in the building.
  • If directed to report for service, much smaller groups of jurors not to exceed 33 would be scheduled to appear at any one time in order to maintain proper social distancing.
  • Jurors are discouraged from reporting for jury service if they are experiencing any acute respiratory symptoms, such as shortness of breath, coughing, headaches, have flu-like symptoms, or have a fever.

Prospective jurors are encouraged to use the court's online jury management system to complete a juror qualification questionnaire. The online jury management system will also allow a juror to request a postponement of jury service to a later date.