2021 | Courts

Jury trials resuming in Montgomery County next week

State’s attorney says he expects many backlogged cases to end in pleas

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Jury trials in criminal and civil cases are scheduled to resume in Montgomery County on Monday following an extended shutdown during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Trials stopped on March 13, 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic as part of a statewide closing of the court system. Courts across the state reopened in a five-phase approach, with jury trials returning in early October. But Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera ordered that trials be suspended on Nov. 16, following an uptick in COVID-19 cases and deaths across the state.

Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy told Bethesda Beat on Thursday that his office has continued to operate throughout the shutdown and has gone through a number of potential plea negotiations.

“Our attorneys are ready to go. We do have a fairly large number of cases backed up, as anyone would imagine,” he said.

McCarthy estimated that the State’s Attorney’s Office has a backlog of about 300 cases, but many, he emphasized, will end in pleas.

Initially juries for two cases will be selected per day, McCarthy said. That might change as vaccinations in the community increase and COVID-19 cases decrease.

McCarthy said a number of courtrooms have been retrofitted with plexiglass dividers to protect witnesses, attorneys and judges from exposure, as was the case when trials resumed in October. Additional, there will be limits on the number of spectators allowed in the courtroom, and everyone entering the court house must have their temperature checked.

Jurors must answer a series of pre-screening questions about whether they have had or have been exposed to the virus before they come to court, McCarthy said.

“They can be excused by jury commissioner without having to come to the courthouse,” he said.

McCarthy said he expects that photos and documents that are entered into evidence will be displayed to the jury as a whole in order to minimize the risk of transmission.

“Sometimes we’ll literally pass a picture to the jury to look at. Well, you’re not gonna pass a document from juror to juror to juror. You’ll put it up on a screen so that they can uniformly see it. You’re not gonna allow the virus to be spread by virtue of touch from person to person,” he said.

McCarthy said that in some of the older criminal cases the  parties have elected to plea out because of factors such is witnesses’ memories of events fading.

“Criminal cases do not get better with age. They’re not like fine wines,” McCarthy said.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com