NORFOLK, Va. - When Norfolk Circuit Court resumed jury trials in September, they anticipated that the number of people who responded to their jury summons would be low, but they didn't realize how low.
"We had a trial on September 21, and we summonsed 120 people to appear. We needed about 40 for the process to begin and we thought if we summonsed three times what we needed, that would probably yield 40 people, but we got 12. So, we got 10% of what we needed," said Chief Judge Mary Jane Hall.
In this instance, the trial wasn't canceled or pushed back due to a lack of jurors, but it very well could have. If there aren't jurors, then the trial cannot go on and justice can't be served.
"People have been waiting since March for their jury trial, and we're finally in a position to be able to offer it to them," Judge Hall said.
Norfolk is just one of a handful of Circuit Courts in the state allowed to hold jury trials again. They were approved by the Virginia Supreme Court after submitting a courtroom safety plan.
They have increased safety measures, in part, by distancing jurors six feet apart, installing Plexiglas around the witness stand and bench and wiping down high-touch surfaces.
On Thursday morning, staff was also re-measuring the chairs to ensure the jurors stay six feet apart.
Judge David Lannetti, who has been presiding over a trial since Tuesday, said, "The new accommodations have worked very well - the social distancing, the precautions we have been taking - and I think the jurors have accepted that very well."
In preparation for Thursday's trial, the court summoned in excess of 600 people. Judge Hall said it is more than in the past, but may be the best way to yield results.
For the first time since jury trials resumed, the line of potential jurors wrapped around the corner of the fourth floor.
However, if a person decided not to show up for court without being properly excused, they could be held in contempt of court. According to Virginia Code, "a judge of a district court shall have the same powers and jurisdiction as a judge of a circuit court to punish summarily for contempt, but in no case shall the fine exceed $250 and imprisonment exceed 10 days for the same contempt."
To avoid being held in contempt of court, a person can request to be exempt from their duties.
Judge Hall said, "We are obviously very understanding of the fact that some people have health conditions [or] people's children are at home. Not everybody is in a position where they can serve on a jury right now, but if you have a reason, please let the court know what the reason is."
Judge Lannetti agreed, adding, "We have an excusal process where we have citizens called jury commissioners who review these requests to be excused and they process them."
Going forward, we're told the Norfolk Sheriff's Office will serve more people face-to-face rather than by mail. They will also be issuing a lot more summonses.
Both Judges want to emphasize how important it is for people to show up for duty and help chip away at the backlog of cases.