LEXINGTON, Ky. (WTVQ) — For the past four months many court proceedings in Kentucky have been put on hold by the coronavirus, creating a huge back log.
August 1st, the Kentucky Supreme Court says trials can resume with criminal proceedings taking priority.
We found the courts and trials will look very different from what we’re used to.
When Fayette Circuit Court got the supreme court order allowing more court proceedings, clerks sent a letter to potential jurors with a COVID-19 questionnaire.
“Whether or not they’ve come into contact with anybody with COVID, whether or not they themselves have tested positive, whether or not they’re high risk, whether or not they’re caring for anyone and just what their concerns are so we can help deal with that even before they get here,” says Fayette Circuit Court Chief Judge Kimberly Bunnell.
Or have been unemployed due to COVID, or just went back to work and have childcare issues.
“Those folks are being excused, and we’re not sure how that’s going to impact what our jury makeup’s going to look like,” says Judge Bunnell.
Bunnell says it creates all kinds of potential problems.
“Unfortunately with delays evidence sometimes changes, witnesses sometimes get sick and die, they move away and you lose them,” says the chief judge.
Then comes social distancing. They’ve marked blue X’s and tape mark spots on the benches.
“There is no way to seat a jury in our traditional jury box and have them socially distance,” says Bunnell.
So jurors will sit where the public usually sits, further from the judge and witness stand.
Family and friends will have to watch from another room on live-stream.
Everyone will wear masks except for the judge.
“To make sure everyone is safe from me, we now have these plastic barriers up,” says Bunnell.
But the changes bring challenges, and lots of them.
Deliberations will now take place in the courtroom and evidence won’t be passed around.
Pictures will be shown on a computer screen.
It all could mean longer trials and hearings.
“People like to see expressions and it’s also more difficult to hear when you can’t read their lips moving,” says Bunnell.
Attorneys say they know judges are doing everything they can to balance safety and fairness. But they have concerns from the issues the judge already mentioned, to the number of people who show up for jury duty, different procedures in different counties and even access to their clients.
A Lexington defense attorney says it’s been harder to advise clients with what to expect during all this. He asks how effective the jury can be sitting farther from the witness stand and with witnesses wearing masks. He also wants jurors who can pay attention with no outside distractions COVID-19 might be causing. Jury makeup is a big concern of his. He also asks if lawyers can effectively cross-examine not being able to see facial expressions behind the mask.
Bunnelll understands everyone’s concerns.
“Everybody’s just trying to get through it the very best we can,” says Judge Bunnell.
The first circuit court trial is scheduled for August 11th.
The court will monitor the number of COVID cases in Lexington and adjust court schedules as needed.