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SALT LAKE CITY — Jury trials are slowly starting back up in Utah after some defendants have waited nearly a year during the pandemic for their day in court.
State courts officials announced Friday that an initial trial will be held in Salt Lake City on Jan. 25, followed by another in Duchesne on Feb. 10. And they say they're working with health experts to make the courthouses as safe as possible.
"We're quite excited about this. We've had a lot of jury trials that have been languishing and it's absolutely killing us," said 3rd District Presiding Judge Mark Kouris. "We're getting the train back on the tracks, if you will."
The precautions include rapid testing for jurors and a mask mandate for everyone except whoever is testifying at the moment. A glass box surrounds the witness stand, with a pipe connected to a heavy-duty air filter outside. The booth is modeled on a similar structure built to protect employees in a waiting room at the University of Utah Hospital.
There is a current backlog of 165 incarcerated defendants awaiting trial just in Utah's 3rd Judicial District alone, which includes Salt Lake, Tooele and Summit counties, Kouris said Friday. He estimated a total of 900 cases have piled up across the state, including those against defendants not currently in jail.
Many of those are unlikely to ultimately go to trial and will instead be resolved in plea deals, Kouris said, but bringing the trials back will help speed up the process.
Prospective jurors will receive a postcard directing them to a website with a COVID-19 survey that will ask them about those risks and whether they're afraid to serve on a jury.
Heidi Anderson, courts information technology director, said more than 2,100 had already filled out the COVID-19 survey as of Friday.
Those who have health issues, or share a household with vulnerable people, have a chance to indicate whether they feel comfortable coming to the courthouse, Kouris said. For example, a person who lives with an elderly parent would be excused from having to report for jury service, he said.
The courts called off an earlier version of the pilot program because of a statewide spike in cases in November. The new plan comes amid a dip in statewide transmission rates and has the support of both prosecutors and public defenders, according to Kouris.
Several prosecutors and defense attorneys have said a virtual trial is out of the question. They contend it's key for those in the courtroom to read small cues that can provide clues about the credibility of witnesses.
So their clients have been in a holding pattern. Jury trials have been on hold across most of the state as infection rates have remained too high to safely hold such proceedings in person. But with access to the rapid testing, Kouris said he expects more courthouses to follow suit.
He emphasized Friday that the pilot program has the approval of state and county health officials.
"They've all kind of blessed what we've done," Kouris said. While it's not possible to ensure any environment is 100% safe, he said, the courts are setting in place several layers of precautions to limit risk as much as possible.
Extra jurors will serve on the panels in the event someone tests positive during the trial, and courthouses will also have backup judges and employees at the ready. But a proceeding could ultimately end in a mistrial if defendants or their attorneys test positive, Kouris said.
That may well happen. The coronavirus has spread rapidly in the Utah State Prison and in several of the state's county jails, where close quarters make social distancing nearly impossible. While many of the state's inmates have been released early, those who remain are expected to be inoculated in March, according to the Utah Department of Health.
In the pilot program, the jury selection process will take place over video, and those empaneled will have their temperature checked and be screened for symptoms when they arrive at the courthouse.
After clearing a rapid test and awaiting the results in small, separate rooms, they'll sit more than 8 feet apart in the largest courtrooms available as they observe and deliberate. The program will begin with one- or two-day trials, and in longer trials, the courts plan to test jurors intermittently.
Normally, Utah courtrooms are open, allowing members of the public and press to observe jurors throughout the case — although no one's permitted to record footage of the jury.
In the upcoming trials, the courthouse doors will be closed to the public but the proceedings will be broadcast online. The video won't capture the jurors, however. It's a precaution to prevent disseminating footage of juries, in order to protect their safety, Kouris said.