Clark County District Court’s first jury trial since coronavirus restrictions brought the local legal system to a halt in March is set to begin Monday.
In deciding to resume jury trials, Chief District Judge Linda Bell weighed the difficulty of summoning residents to the courthouse in the midst of a pandemic.
“We recognize the extra sacrifice people are making by having jury duty at this time,” she said. “It’s been worth our time to spend a lot of time and energy to make sure we keep these people as safe as possible.”
No observers will be allowed inside courtroom 3F at the Regional Justice Center in downtown Las Vegas to watch opening statements, hear testimony or closing arguments, or see defendant Kristopher Peters’ face as jurors deliver their verdict.
Instead, a livestream link on the court’s homepage was set up for the public to view the trial.
Socially distanced black leather chairs in the center of the courtroom have been arranged for jurors. Green cloth chairs that could not be wiped down were tossed out in the monthlong pandemic-readying renovation.
Peters, who faces 11 felony charges including burglary and illegal credit card possession, and his attorney, Dan Hill, will be given headsets to communicate privately. The defense and prosecution tables feature disinfectant wipes and sanitizing solution within reach and clear partitions with open spaces to pass notes.
District Judge Kathleen Delaney and her staff will sit behind partitions with the same virus protections nearby.
Small black boxes spaced around the courtroom will pump dry hydrogen peroxide into the room, destroying potentially infectious air.
Staff from University Medical Center will be on call in case anyone involved in the trial reports COVID-19 symptoms. Down the hall, in what was once a jury deliberation room, court officials and medical teams set up a rapid testing center that can provide results within 15 minutes.
‘It’s a tough balancing act’
Hill said he was comfortable moving forward with a jury trial, one of the fundamental aspects of the criminal justice system, but expressed apprehension about steps made in order to ensure safety from the virus.
“From a precautionary standpoint, the court has taken tremendous measures,” he said. “But I have some constitutional concerns.”
The setting of a sterilized and redesigned courtroom could distract jurors from testimony and evidence, and Hill pointed out that witnesses would be wearing masks, which could lead to doubts about their testimony.
He said officials need to take safety precautions while ensuring a fair trial and trying not to delay the legal process for people who have invoked their right to a speedy trial.
“So it’s a tough balancing act,” the attorney said.
The lead prosecutor in the trial, Chad Lexis, said he and others in the Clark County district attorney’s office are prepared to resume jury trials in an effort to cut down on a backlog of cases delayed throughout the past six months.
“Coming to work during COVID, I have absolutely zero concerns about my health and safety,” he said. “We have been anxious and ready to go. We’ve just been waiting for the green light. … Jury trials absolutely need to resume, and the sooner we can get back to normal the better off the people of Clark County will be. We’re doing far more good by trying cases than keeping things status quo.”
Court Executive Officer Steve Grierson said about $250,000 in funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act went into remodeling the third floor.
The chief judge was instrumental in overseeing safety precautions before jurors entered the building, he said, even ensuring that local medical personnel offered guidance.
“I heard her consistently say: ‘We’ve got to get there. We have to get there, somehow, some way,’” Grierson said. “And her whole thing was that it has to be done with every safety precaution. That was her mandate. That was her directive. All of a sudden, you get some support, and you’re like, ‘I think we can pull this off.’”
‘We’re not going to push the limits’
Using the courtroom on the third floor allows jurors to use escalators, rather than being crammed into elevators that would take them to upper-level courtrooms. Before the prospective jurors even enter an orientation room, they will be screened and have their temperatures taken.
That means the defendant, who has a right to be present at all aspects of his trial, including jury selection, will wait in a nearby lounge with his attorney while 55 potential jurors are called in for orientation. The windows of the lounge and jury services room have been covered so no one can see in or out, and prospective jurors won’t see the defendant in handcuffs or jail clothing. He’ll be dressed in street clothing when he appears in front of the jury.
Because of the number of people present, the process of jury selection is set to take place inside the jury services room, rather than the courtroom.
As court staff rearranged the chairs on Friday, Jury Commissioner Mariah Witt pointed to a cart stuffed with sanitizing solution, disinfectant wipes and masks. Officials with University Medical Center and the Southern Nevada Health District have scrutinized the area, she said.
“We’ve taken every step that we can,” she said. “I’m confident in our precautions. You’re probably safer here than you are at the grocery store.”
Inside the courtroom, microphones are to be wiped down after witnesses testify, and boxes of rubber gloves are available for those handling paper exhibits.
Should a symptomatic juror test positive, Bell said, the judge would determine whether to proceed.
“This is a little more challenging because we don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable or unsafe,” the judge said. “So if we have a situation like that, we’re not going to push the limits. Everyone’s health and safety is more important than getting a trial done. But we do have people in custody, so we’re trying to balance those things out.”
Las Vegas Justice Court
Earlier this month, a misdemeanor jury trial conducted in Las Vegas Justice Court brought six jurors and one alternate to the courtroom of Justice of the Peace Melisa De La Garza.
De La Garza said the 40 potential jurors called for a domestic violence trial appeared to understand that court functions were essential, even in a pandemic.
“We didn’t really have any negative responses,” she said. “So I think people understand the position the criminal justice system is in at this point.”