After months of delay, jury trials resume on a limited basis next week in the 43rd Prosecutorial District, made up of the state’s seven westernmost counties and overseen by District Attorney Ashley Hornsby Welch. The first jury trials in the district start Monday in Haywood County. In March, Chief Justice Cheri Beasley ordered a statewide halt to jury trials to help combat coronavirus spread. She extended the restriction through Oct. 15. Though jury trials have not taken place, North Carolina’s judicial system has continued its day-to-day functions, such as accepting pleas, holding traffic court and granting protections to victims of domestic violence. In anticipation of the gradual resumption of jury trials, Chief Justice Beasley directed senior resident superior court judges, in consultation with local officials, to craft court safety plans. The state’s Administrative Office of the Courts and the public health director for each county reviewed and approved all safety measures.
The 43rd Prosecutorial District has two senior resident judges: Bradley B. Letts oversees 30B, made up of Haywood and Jackson counties; Bill Coward oversees 30A, made up of Macon, Clay, Cherokee, Graham and Swain counties. The judges retain discretion to suspend jury trials in their counties in connection with COVID-19, based on local needs and conditions.
In this prosecutorial district, precautions in court include:
• Requiring face masks or shields.
• Separating summoned jurors 6- to 10-feet apart.
• Maintaining proper social distancing during breaks and deliberations.
• Limiting seating for spectators to designated spaces and holding one seat open for the press.
• Presenting exhibits to the jury electronically or in a collective fashion; no paper distribution is allowed.
• Providing COVID-19 medical screenings of jurors, court personnel, attorneys witnesses and other involved parties.
• Restricting county court sessions to one week only.
• Finding substitute sites for court if a particular county’s courtroom is too small to maintain social distancing.
Haywood County has adequately sized courtrooms, as well as a jury assembly room that provides still more space, Assistant District Attorney Jeff Jones said.
Jurors will be seated in both the juror box and in the audience area of the courtroom, providing 6- to 10-foot distancing; additionally, the courtrooms have been refigured with safety in mind.
The one-week restriction for jury trials has shaped the types of cases that can be heard. “Those selected for trial are factually brief and do not require a large number of witnesses,” Jones said.
After Haywood’s session, Jackson and Clay counties are scheduled to hold jury trials for one week each, beginning Monday, Nov. 2. Assistant District Attorney John Hindsman Jr. said Clay County has adequate space for court proceedings, but jury selection will move from the courthouse to the recreation center/gym. Haywood County has a second session for jury trials beginning the week of Nov. 9. Cherokee County will hold jury trials the week of Nov. 16, in the usual venue. Macon, Swain and Graham counties start jury trials in the new year.