Delaware’s courts get ready to resume jury trials

Delaware Courts Chief of Community Relations Sean O’Sullivan shows some of the new safety features in Courtroom 1 at the Kent County Courthouse. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — As Delaware’s justice system eases back into jury trials this month, the health and safety of all entering the secured courthouse doors remains paramount.

Jury duty summonses have already been sent to potential panelists, the first reporting Oct. 19 in Kent County Superior Court.

In New Castle County, summonses for service are for Oct. 20, while Sussex County scheduling is undetermined, as the logistics of a smaller courthouse remain a work in progress, Delaware Courts spokesman Sean O’Sullivan said. Sussex County trials are slated to return sometime in November, he added.

The Kent County Courthouse now uses thermal imaging to read body temperatures for all those who enter the building. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Jury trials were suspended March 16, when the judicial emergency was declared and courts were closed to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Kent and New Castle will hold one trial each to start, as Mr. O’Sullivan said, “We want to take it slow. We want to walk before we can run.”

As such, 45 potential jurors will be called for each trial, compared to a previous call for approximately 200 for a day full of possible cases.

Deputy of Prothonotary Mary Fitzpatrick is behind a glass enclosure at The Kent County Courthouse. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

For the first month or so, trials will involve noncustodial cases, where the defendants are not incarcerated.

During a media tour of the Kent County Courthouse on Thursday, Mr. O’Sullivan outlined procedures to increase the safety of potential jurors, including the use of the largest space — Courtroom 1 on the second floor — for orientation, check-in and the trial itself. Many seats aren’t made available due to social distancing guidelines, and the juror candidates are assigned seats to maintain safety.

Chairs for members of the jury and visitors are now set in a social distance in Courtroom 1 at The Kent County Courthouse. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

There’s one entrance to the building and a separate exit as opposed to the same set of doors previously used “so people don’t cross paths as much as possible,” said Mr. O’Sullivan, who also noted that building custodians are regularly cleaning elevator buttons, railings, door handles and any surfaces the public comes in contact with.

Delaware Chief Justice Collins J. Seitz Jr. issued a Phase Three modified status that became effective Monday as recommended by the Courts Reopening Committee. Safety guidelines include:

• Increasing the number of people allowed in courtrooms and public areas adjacent to courtrooms to 50 and allowing the resumption of civil and criminal jury trials.

•New safety protocols, established in earlier phases, will remain in place.

•More in-person proceedings will resume and incarcerated defendants will once again be brought to the courthouse rather than appearing only by video (though increased use of video proceedings will still be encouraged).

•Court staffing can increase to no more than 75% percent and building occupancy will be limited to 75%.

The Court said that Phase Four will mark a return to full operations, though under “new normal” that may include maintaining certain safety procedures and an increased use of technology as established during the emergency and phased reopening period. Court staffing and building occupancy will return to 100%.

In addition to the phased reopening framework, the report also included a number of other recommended operational changes including:

•Adopting contact tracing procedures in the event any visitor or employee at the courthouse contracts or is exposed to COVID-19.

•Making changes to court employee workspaces to comply with social distancing, adding floor markings in public areas of courthouse offices to indicate six-foot separation, installing plastic shields in offices where employees interact with the public and in certain courtroom areas, and coordination of court calendars to minimize traffic at the courthouses.

The Delaware Court system produced a nearly six-minute YouTube video outlining jury service information, beginning with an overview by Chief Justice Seitz.

“Our revised jury service guidelines are the result of hundreds of hours of study by judges, lawyers and experts,” he said.

“We are confident that they are the best and safest of any state.”

More information on court procedures is available online at courts.delaware.gov