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Nov. 28, 2020

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Clark County seeks fair jury during pandemic

Court officials rent space at fairgrounds to ensure social distancing as trials recommence

By , Columbian Breaking News Reporter
Published:
4 Photos
Clark County jury coordinator Gigi Darfler, center, gives instructions to potential jurors as they begin jury selection for a civil trial Monday morning at the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds. The Superior Court trial is one of two that commenced Monday. They are the first to be heard by jurors since mid-March due to COVID-19. Jury selection for a Clark County District Court domestic violence case was carried out at the courthouse in Vancouver.
Clark County jury coordinator Gigi Darfler, center, gives instructions to potential jurors as they begin jury selection for a civil trial Monday morning at the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds. The Superior Court trial is one of two that commenced Monday. They are the first to be heard by jurors since mid-March due to COVID-19. Jury selection for a Clark County District Court domestic violence case was carried out at the courthouse in Vancouver. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Potential jurors gathered Monday morning at the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds, chosen for its spaciousness, which allows everyone involved in the jury selection process to follow social distancing guidelines.

It was a straightforward process in an unfamiliar setting, for one of two trials commenced Monday. They are the first to be heard by jurors since mid-March due to COVID-19. The civil case involves a workers’ compensation appeal, and during the trial, the jury will hear testimony previously given.

Clark County Courthouse employees provided supplies to potential jurors entering the fairgrounds exhibition hall. A plastic bag contained an N95 mask, hand wipes and tissues.

Just inside the doors of the hall’s lobby, there was a metal detector and a courthouse security guard equipped with a digital thermometer who checked the temperatures of everyone entering the building.

The center was split into two large rooms. Rows of plastic chairs were placed 6 feet apart in both rooms, one used for orientation and the other acting as the courtroom. The chairs were numbered so county residents called for jury duty would not touch the same furniture.

Jury selection for a Clark County District Court domestic violence case was carried out at the courthouse in Vancouver. Clark County Superior Court Administrator Jessica Gurley said District Court cases require six jurors, so fewer people are called for jury duty. Social distancing guidelines can be maintained in the courthouse’s jury assembly room, and one additional courtroom is available if needed, she said.

For the cases that require the usual 12 jurors, the exhibition hall in Ridgefield is set up to accommodate jury selection for two trials, according to Gurley. Court officials looked into using schools and other locations. The center was preferable because it’s county-affiliated and large, and the managers there have been accommodating.

“It was our number one choice, and we’re lucky we got it,” Gurley said.

The cost to rent the space for Monday’s jury selection was $1,300. But if the Superior Court is conducting jury selection for two trials, it costs $1,950 to rent the space. The rentals are paid for by Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funds, Gurley said.

The court’s contract with the fairgrounds is through Dec. 31. Whether the hall is used until that time depends on the reopening phase the county is in and what social distancing restrictions are in place. The fairgrounds may start to host more events if restrictions are lifted, making the space unavailable, Gurley said.

Right to speedy trial

Superior Court Judge Jennifer Snider declined to allow The Columbian to interview potential jurors before jury selection began; she worried that speaking about coronavirus concerns could influence their perspective. However, among the first series of questions as the selection began, Snider asked if anyone had concerns about COVID-19 and whether it could affect their ability to perform.

Only one man, out of 32 people summoned to report, raised his hand. He held a piece of paper with his jury number high above his head, as if at an auction. He tried to speak through his face mask, but his words were difficult to make out, for the judge and others in the room. Snider requested he use a microphone at the center of the rows of chairs.

“Please don’t touch the microphone,” said Snider, reminding the juror pool of a precaution highlighted during her initial remarks to the group.

The man said his newborn child’s health made them more susceptible to the virus, and before being called in for his civic duty, he’d quarantined and consciously followed social distancing guidelines.

Snider’s questions and remarks were broadcast in the large room through standing speakers. An audio technician sat alone at a table to the right of the judge’s assistant, monitoring the setup. With the exception of a slight echo, the judge’s voice could be heard clearly.

Snider said the straightforward civil trial was not chosen purposefully as a test; it was the result of chance. She said administrators have spent a lot of time preparing for trials to resume, and she was eager to return to the work.

“Judges don’t like to not have trials for six months,” Snider said.

Defendants have a right to a speedy trial — within 60 days of the commencement date for those in custody and 90 days for those out of custody. But the state’s Supreme Court has issued an order that excludes time for speedy trial calculation through Oct. 15, due to the “serious danger posed by COVID-19 (that) constitutes an unavoidable circumstance.”

Vancouver-based defense attorney Shon Bogar said the circumstances are creating a “due process nightmare.” He said he understands the necessity of suspending speedy trial rights, but orders being put in aren’t enough to address the complexity of the problem. He added that he worries low-level criminal cases are continuing to clog the system when there are more meaningful cases that should move forward.

“No one seems to be addressing the fact that (the county) is at (a COVID-19 activity level of) nearly 70 per 100,000 people. We’re setting goals not informed by science, setting ourselves up for false expectations,” Bogar said. (Clark County data released Tuesday shows a COVID-19 activity level at 69.4, in the “moderate” range for school reopening based on the number of new cases per 100,000 population over a 14-day period.)

Bogar added that he does not blame the court issues on anyone in particular, as navigating the pandemic is a first for everyone.

Shared concerns

The plaintiff’s attorney, Steve Busick, said the exhibition hall looked like a good setting to maintain social distancing, but he worried about being able to communicate clearly.

“The masks make it harder to see facial expressions, and it’s important for jurors to see those cues, so I’m hoping I am permitted to remove the mask when needed,” Busick said.

Snider told those in the juror pool they may see her and the attorneys remove their masks occasionally. She said it was permitted as they are all “active participants” in the trial, and they should not draw any conclusions about why the attorneys are or aren’t wearing their masks.

Attorney Steve Reinisch, representing PeaceHealth, said he’ll be looking to see if he can establish a rapport with the potential jurors at such a great distance.

“It will be interesting to see if I can convey what I want to in such a large, physical space,” Reinisch said.

Once a jury is selected, the case moves back to the courthouse for trial.

The domestic violence case being prosecuted by city attorneys and heard at the courthouse marked the first criminal case to go to trial since restrictions governing hearings were put into place in March. Clark County Prosecutor Tony Golik said he believes the court has done well to make the fairgrounds work as an alternative space for jury selection.

His office “has done a lot to look at how prosecutors will present evidence in a case effectively while maintaining social distancing guidelines. Everyone has concerns about the process, but I’m confident we can get things done and still protect the rights of defendants while keeping everyone safe,” Golik said.

Bogar said his general concerns about choosing jurors in the current circumstance is based on the issue of who can participate. The elderly, the poor and people of color are being more severely affected by the pandemic, and they may be unable to serve on a jury. So, ensuring his clients are heard by a group of peers is unlikely, he said.

There is currently a backlog of criminal cases set to go to trial, Golik said, but that’s a typical facet of the criminal justice system. With cases currently being handled differently, such as nonviolent suspects being released from custody to maintain a lower inmate population at the Clark County Jail, it’s hard to say how far behind things may be.

Golik said he anticipates his office will deem multiple criminal trials ready in the next few weeks, but whether they move forward will be up to the attorneys on either side.

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