A jury of their (masked) peers

Jury trials to resume in Circuit Court and District Court in August, safety precautions to be in place


Joshua Wood

Benches traditionally used by the public will, for the forseeable future, be used as the jury box as both Carbon County District Court and Carbon County Circuit Court resume jury trials in August.

At the Carbon County Courthouse in Rawlins, both the District Court and Circuit Court have gone nearly five months without having a jury trial. That is about to change starting the first week in August as a backlog of criminal and civil cases approach their deadline.

"In Wyoming, there's a statutory right to a speedy trial within 180 days of the arraignment and we have run into the instance, because we have continued cases since March, now we're up on people who even charged in March are at their speedy trial deadline," said District Court Judge Dawnessa Snyder. "Because of times of great turmoil like this, there are exceptions to the statute but not to the constitution. So, we need to get some cases tried that are coming up on their constitutional rights."

For both Snyder and Circuit Court Judge Susan Stipe, that means trying cases back-to-back in an attempt to clear up the backlog. In the district court, Snyder is looking at four to eight weeks of successive trials. Stipe has her own backlog, though she admits that her trials typically last a day compared to Snyder's, which can last for multiple days.

"Unfortunately, that means a lot of people are going to be called for jury service for the rest of the year. So, they should anticipate that," said Snyder. "If they have a pre-existing health condition that puts them at a greater risk for being in a crowd, that's something we want to know."

Of the two courtrooms, Snyder's is the largest. Nearly half of it is taken up by benches that, under normal circumstances, would be used by the public. As courts reopen in a time when social distancing is still a requirement, those benches now serve as the jury box with laminated signs for designating their assigned areas.

"We've got new podiums so that each party will have their own podium. We will have the witness testify from the jury box so that they'll be closer to where the jury's going to be seated now," Snyder said.

Stipe's courtroom, meanwhile, is difficult to maintain social distancing. Despite having a jury half the size of Snyder's, the circuit court judge admits that even before the arrival of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) it was difficult to comfortably fit her whole jury panel. So, for the foreseeable future, jury trials in the circuit court will take place at the Jeffrey Center across the street from the courthouse.

"We're going to set the Jeffrey Center up as a courtroom and put it up for jury trial proceedings over there. I think that I'll be able to get my jury panel all as one group because of the size of that facility," said Stipe. "I've reserved the Jeffrey Center for the dates of the upcoming jury trials and we'll continue to do so."

With the temporary location of the Jeffrey Center, this not only allows Stipe the room for the jury panel but the ability for the jury to recess elsewhere for deliberation. Court will be held in either the east or west wing of the building. Whichever wing isn't used for court proceedings will be used for jury deliberation. 

In the case of Snyder, that will look a little different. Instead of the jury recessing to a smaller room that doesn't allow for social distancing, the jury will use the courtroom to deliberate while the judge and others leave the room. In addition, all microphones and cameras will be turned off to allow for the deliberation to occur in private.

Despite the backlog of cases, both Snyder and Stipe feel that they have scheduled appropriately for the upcoming trials. Both have, in their time on the court, gauged how long a trial may take. Additionally, when the attorneys tell them how long they feel they need to try a case, they will be given an extra day as a buffer. If a trial does run long, however, it may mean a longer night or a trial going over into the weekend.

Additionally, criminal cases supersede civil cases. If a criminal case runs too long, a civil case in the next week will be bumped until a later date. According to Snyder, this is something that civil litigants are made aware of due to the constitutional rights owed in criminal cases.

One more thing; masks or face shields will be a requirement of jury service.

"Jurors will be required to wear masks or shields. They'll be given a choice between the two but it's required, just like their jury service is required, just like appropriate clothing is required. It will be part of our requirement to come into the courtroom," said Snyder. "We will absolutely be enforcing-I think that's the important part, too-we'll absolutely be enforcing our rules."

"I definitely will feel the same way and there are certain things, of course, that the court has the authority to do if a person refuses to follow the court's order but hopefully we will be avoiding that situation. One thing I do know about Carbon County is that we have an excellent jury pool," Stipe said. "We are known for being the county with individuals willing to report and serve. I just don't anticipate that we're going to have problems complying with the court's orders."

Snyder and Stipe are looking forward to the return of jury trials. It appears that, for both of them, it is important that justice is served for those who have been waiting for months.

"I know it's uncomfortable and it will be a challenge but it's a right that these defendants deserve, it's a right that our prosecution and state and victims (deserve)," Snyder said. "They deserve to have these cases litigated. It's our job as judges to make sure that everyone's getting their day in court."

Jury trials will resume August 3 and it is around then that Carbon County residents can expect calls from either the District Court Clerk or the Circuit Court Clerk. As the judges themselves have been working to figure out how to resume jury trials, it has also meant extra work for their staff.

"It has been extremely stressful trying to figure out even rolling back to doing court proceedings in person. Of course, when COVID-19 came, there wasn't warning. You knew that it was a global concern but our calendars are full and those are full for months in advance. Staff has just worked extra hard throughout all of this to make sure that we kept moving forward and having the hearings that we could," said Stipe. "Now, of course, there's extra on them because they're also having to do a lot of cleansing in between. Making sure things are set up to where it can be safe for individuals that come to the courtroom."


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