CHARLOTTE — The COVID-19 pandemic continues to clog the wheels of justice in Mecklenburg County even as the county courthouse hopes to resume jury trials next month.
Under a new local plan recently approved by the state, the county courthouse will call its first batch of jurors since March for the week of Nov. 16.
The actual trials, however, depend on Charlotte-Mecklenburg avoiding a surge in coronavirus cases, even as the pandemic continues to disrupt the day-to-day operations of the state's largest local court system.
Last week, Mecklenburg Clerk of Court Elisa Chinn-Gary said she quarantined a 12-member section of her office — the second such action she has taken this month. Earlier in October, Chinn-Gary also says she notified two judges that they might have been exposed to the virus.
Across town in the federal courthouse, officials with the Western District of North Carolina say they can no longer afford the special safety steps to keep their trials COVID-resistant.
Since June, courtrooms in Charlotte, Asheville and Statesville have been sanitized after every hearing. Nurses have been posted at the entrances of the Charlotte and Asheville courthouses to spot check those who enter for COVID-19 symptoms.
Federal Clerk of Court Frank Johns said those extra steps to date have cost the district about $106,000. That's money the court district can no longer afford, Johns said, because its new budget was cut 25% despite the scheduled opening of a new eight-story annex in Charlotte next spring.
Asked if the cutbacks would make the courthouse less safe, Johns said that description "would be a little too harsh" and that the courthouse would benefit from what he described as "an improvement in adult behavior."
"Almost everyone who comes in the courthouse is now wearing a mask," he said.
In North Carolina courts, Chief Justice Cheri Beasley halted jury trials statewide more than seven months ago to slow the spread of the virus. Beasley has already announced that she does not plan to extend her order, clearing the way for the tentative resumption of jury trials — absent a spike in coronavirus cases similar to what North Carolina faced in mid-summer.
In Mecklenburg County, the safety steps laid out by Bob Bell, a Superior Court judge, and other courthouse officials range from the removal of Bibles on which jurors and witnesses take oaths, to refiguring two courtrooms for criminal and civil jury trials.
Under the plan, jurors will sit in the visitor's gallery instead of the jury box to maintain social distancing. When witnesses finish testifying, either they or the attorneys who called them will sanitize the jury boxes.
Spencer Merriweather, a district attorney for Mecklenburg County, said that the return of jury trials will enable his office to begin chipping away at a sizable backlog of criminal cases. Those include more than 100 cases each for violent crimes, sexual assault and domestic violence, habitual offenders and other felonies.
"That's a lot of cases, and not being able to operate at full capacity in our court system is not without great costs," Merriweather said. "But you have to start somewhere."
Merriweather said his prosecutors will not schedule murder and rape trials until the new protocols have been thoroughly tested because the impact of a mistrial due to sickened jurors, witnesses or other participants in is too severe.
Chinn-Gary, head of a sprawling office in which at least 10 employees in the last seven months have tested positive for the virus, said the Nov. 16 start date for jury trials remains a goal.
But she acknowledged there are factors the courthouse can't control.
"Our best efforts are still tied around the unknowns of who might get sick," she said.
The unpredictability of operating a criminal-justice system during a pandemic surfaced again a few days ago when the district attorney's office in neighboring Caldwell County closed after an employee tested positive for COVID-19.
Court sessions were canceled until prosecutors from nearby counties can be brought in to handle cases. Meanwhile, employees in the Caldwell DA's office began immediate quarantines and will be tested in coming days.
Across the country, a surge in new COVID-19 cases has fueled fears that a second viral wave has begun.
At the Mecklenburg courthouse, the final decision to resume jury trials will be "guided by science" officials say.
Jury trials will limited to two courtrooms at first — one for criminal cases, the other for civil.
Before the trials can start the county's population must reach — and maintain — certain COVID-19 benchmarks established in conjunction with the Mecklenburg County Health Department.
According to the plan, jury trials can resume if the county's case rate sticks at less than 10 cases per 100,000 population for 14 days. The rate of positive tests over that same period must stay under 5%.
Levels above that can lead to limits on the jury trials scheduled.
If the two-week readings slide into the "red zone" of at least 100 cases per 100,000 residents or the percentage of positive tests tops 10%, jury trials can be suspended.
In a report last week from Mecklenburg health officials, the weekly percent of positive tests among county residents was 4.4%. That figure, which falls under the courthouse report's minimal range, would allow trials to resume.
As of Oct. 7, the county's case rate was 53 per 100,000 people — within what the courthouse report describes as the moderate range under which only priority trials would occur.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools administrators are using nearly identical guidelines to navigate a gradual return to in-person learning.
If the jury trials go forward next month, they will do so under what Merriweather describes as a "different court circumstances than we've ever experienced."
Bibles won't be used for sworn oaths because it's considered safer for jurors and witnesses to simply raise their hands in the air.
New space had to be found for a jury room big enough to maintain social distancing. When the panels go on break, they won't have access to the normal magazines and games. All have been put away.
Jurors must clean and bag any notebooks, pens and pencils they use during the trial.
In order for the jury to better judge their credibility, witnesses must wear either a clear mask or face shield.
Plexiglass barriers will be used liberally around the judge's bench.
Trials will be shorter — with more breaks to give jurors and other courtroom visitors more access to fresh air.