Jury selections start Monday at civic center

Jury trials return but using only one courtroom

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Jury selections will begin at 9 a.m. Monday at a new temporary location as jury trials are now about to be restarted in Walker County, after being postponed for months due to COVID-19.

"We will do the jury qualification and selection at the Jasper Civic Center. We needed that space to accommodate everybody and still be able to social distance," Presiding Circuit Judge Hoyt Elliott said Thursday. 

All health precautions will be taken, Elliott emphasized. 

"Jurors will be screened (for COVID-19) and all safety precautions will be taken. Their temperatures will be taken and masks will be required, and we will socially distance, of course." If a potential juror does not have a mask, they will be given one. 

The Walker County Commission recently agreed to temporarily designate the civic center as a courthouse annex. The City of Jasper, which owns the civic center, is not charging the county.

"They have been very accommodating," Elliott said, adding the court system and county officials are grateful to the city for that. 

"All three of the judges have cases for trial," he said, noting the docket is set for two weeks. "We can only try one case in one courtroom at a time because mine is the only courtroom that can come close to being able to accommodate a trial and have sufficient distancing among the jurors." 

Once the jury selection takes place at the civic center, the trials themselves will be held at Elliott's courtroom, Room 303, housed on the third floor of the main Walker County Courthouse. That relocation will likely start on Tuesday. 

He said doing all the trials in his courtroom will leave limited space for anyone other than participants in the trial. 

"I can't seat the jury in the jury box. I'm going to have to put them where normally spectators would sit, and space them throughout that area," Elliott said. "It will take some adjustment." 

Some discussion has been held about the possibility of a video or audio feed for spectators to follow the trial at a distance - locally and across the state - but technical problems would have to be tackled and no decision has been made, he said. 

Also, there have been discussions about using the civic center for trials, and court and civic center personnel met several days ago. He said that location is the only other possible location he could think of to hold trial. 

However, court officials are seeing how this session goes as a starting point to do basic functions, and may make adjustments as they go along, he said. "We would like to have more than one case tried at a time." 

"This first session will tell us a lot," he said. "We'll know more after this one." 

Circuit Judge Doug Farris will have the first case, then Elliott will have a case, and then Circuit Judge Chris Sherer should start his case the following Monday, he said. Overall, he anticipates three to five cases for the session, noting many cases have already settled and more could always be settled before and during trial. 

Elliott noted the larger main hall will be used for overall jury qualifications, making sure they meet legal qualifications to sit as jurors based on residence, age and other factors. Then, if broken into smaller juror groups, judges are expected to meet in smaller meeting rooms (and maybe eventually in the main meeting room, too) to select juries for the actual trials. 

The duration for the change is unknown, but Elliott anticipates it is for the rest of the year. 

Elliott noted as far as state orders that have led to trials being postponed, this is the earliest week that has been allowed by the state to restart jury trials. Courts in other counties may wait until October. 

The last court docket Elliott recalled earlier this year was in February, about a month before the COVID-19 pandemic started. The Alabama Supreme Court started issuing orders that resulted in courts being closed for months except for essential or teleconferenced hearings for some time. 

Dockets were added in November and December to make up for lost time in 2020, leaving a late year schedule that Elliott recently said would be "challenging." He said the schedule is subject to change due to how the COVID-19 pandemic proceeds. 

Anyone with questions may call the Circuit Clerk's Office at 205-384-7268.