Courthouse Modifications for Jury Trials Nearly Complete

As much as day-to-day operations were drastically disrupted by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, operations in the county courthouse all but came to a halt in mid-March. There hasn’t been a jury trial since then.

But that should change by January, thanks to the work of the county staff, who have been modifying the building to safely allow the many people necessary for those trials back inside. According to Assistant County Administrator John Sandy, that work should wrap up this month.

“They’re seeing a lot of progress. They’re feeling pretty confident,” he said.

Four days after Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency, Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons on March 16 signed into effect a Declaration of Judicial Emergency that required all civil, traffic and criminal matters, including jury trials, to be continued in an effort to keep as many people as possible out of courthouses to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Lemons extended that order for a 14th time Dec. 3, holding it in effect through Jan. 3.

But on Oct. 15, a panel of the Virginia Supreme Court approved Loudoun’s plan to resume jury trials, with the stipulation they would not begin for 45 days, or Nov. 30. There still hasn’t been a jury trial yet and there likely won’t be one until the second half of January, Clerk of the Circuit Court Gary Clemens said.

The first jury trial back is expected to be for Brian Welsh, the man charged with two counts of first-degree murder in connection with the January 2018 shooting deaths of a mother and her adult son at their Aldie home. That trial is scheduled to begin Jan. 19 and stretch to Feb. 12.

After that, jury trials will be held one at a time, with the county’s largest courtroom to be used for 14-person jury trials for felony criminal cases and a smaller courtroom for eight-person jury trials for criminal misdemeanor and civil cases.

To accommodate those jury trials, Loudoun County General Services staffers have been retrofitting the courtrooms. In addition to rearranging furniture and replacing fabric items with those made of wood or plastic, Sandy said the most notable adjustment has been the configuration of the juror seats. Instead of all jury members sitting in the jury box within a few feet of each other, Sandy said they’ll be positioned around the courtroom.

Clemens said judges will need to “test drive” that arrangement before giving the nod to proceed. He said the process has been difficult to tackle because the space is not designed for the kind of socially distant trials they’ll be conducting.

“It’s definitely been a challenge throughout the whole process,” Clemens said.

Sandy said, “social distancing is really the primary factor,” along with ventilation and cleaning protocols being set in place. Clemens said there will be a General Services staffer in the courthouse each day to help with daily cleaning efforts there.

“They’re going to have staff dedicated to this for the duration,” Clemens said.

Sandy said that, while the modification work didn’t require a lot of “real physical structural changes,” the real challenge came when county staffers sought to purchase certain materials but were faced with empty shelves. But, he said, the county staff was able to work around those shortages and find other materials to do the job.

“They have become very efficient at getting that work done,” Sandy said. “They were able to hit the ground running.”

As for the dozens of prospective jurors who will report to the courthouse for voir dire—the juror selection process—they’ll assemble in more than one room. Clemens said his office has commandeered additional office space to spread them out. He said modifications to those rooms should be complete by early January.

Loudoun’s plan for a jury trial return calls for the court to issue jury summonses to at least three times the number of jurors than would be needed to report on the trial date, since the court anticipates it will defer many summoned jurors based on their responses to a COVID-19 questionnaire.

Since courthouse modifications began in October, cases have proceeded as scheduled to the greatest degree, albeit with many more remote hearings than ever before. Clemens said that aside from Adult Detention Center inmates frequently appearing in court via a livestream from the jail, parties involved in civil cases—including litigants, defendants and witnesses—have been able to do the same.

Clemens said that while he was unsure whether judges are permitted to hear cases remotely, all Loudoun judges have been physically reporting to the courtroom.

And, Clemens said, Fairfax County Circuit Court Chief Judge Bruce D. White has been “very collaborative” with Loudoun County Circuit Court Chief Justice Douglas L. Fleming throughout the entire courthouse modification process, which will be put to the test Jan. 19.

“The Welsh case is going to show us where we may want to make adjustments,” Clemens said. “It’s going to be a learning process for everyone.”

County leaders understand there’s a chance the Welsh trial still might not begin on time. With COVID-19 cases on the rise—the seven-day rolling average of new daily cases crossed the 100 benchmark for the first time since May 30 the last weekend in November, with the cumulative number of Loudoun cases reaching 10,049—Lemons could issue a new order disallowing jury trials regardless of whether individual circuit courts have the Virginia Supreme Court’s approval to proceed.

“It’s certainly a potential reality,” Clemens said.

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