Since October, state and federal court officials in New York City have taken extraordinary measures to restart criminal trials. They constructed plexiglass boxes with special air filters. They asked witnesses to testify in face shields and spread jurors out in courtroom galleries. Those efforts have not stopped the virus from disrupting nearly every step of the process, the New York Times reports. State and federal courts have completed only nine criminal jury trials since the pandemic hit in March. Last year, there were 800 criminal trials. Across the U.S., federal judges in Nebraska, Nevada, Colorado and several other jurisdictions have suspended jury trials in response to rising virus cases. A court in McKinney, a Dallas suburb, held the state’s first virtual criminal trial last month.
Each court determines its own protocols. An Orange County, Ca., court has completed 114 criminal trials since May, while the federal courthouse across the street has determined it is unsafe to hold trials. In New York City, the challenge of preventing the virus’s spread is magnified by the dense population. In normal times, clerks, court officers and lawyers squeeze into courtroom galleries and line crowded hallways, waiting for cases to be called. The logistical problems have threatened the right to a speedy trial for hundreds of defendants. As a second wave of the virus threatens, delays are worsening. Some prosecutors have pushed to delay trials because witnesses live out of state or work in hospitals with COVID-19 patients. “Is it fair for people to be languishing in pretrial detention and presumed innocent with no prospect of a trial in the future for them?” said Chief New York administrative judge Lawrence Marks. “A criminal justice system cannot be, in any sense of the word, fully functioning, if it is not conducting jury trials.”