Dayton courts continue to postpone most trials because of pandemic

A Montgomery County assistant prosecutor asks questions to a Dayton Police detective earlier this year during a jury trial. Plexiglass has been installed in courtrooms to prevent the spread of COVID-19. // MARSHALL GORBYSTAFF
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A Montgomery County assistant prosecutor asks questions to a Dayton Police detective earlier this year during a jury trial. Plexiglass has been installed in courtrooms to prevent the spread of COVID-19. // MARSHALL GORBYSTAFF

The Montgomery County Common Pleas Court has postponed most jury trials until the end of March, citing coronavirus concerns, continuing a trend that’s taken place since the beginning of the pandemic.

Also, the Dayton Municipal Court has taken similar action and plans to postpone most trials through February.

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The newest Montgomery County Common Pleas Court order again allows the local judges some flexibility to determine whether it is safe and necessary for a trial to take place. According to the court’s jury services, two trials were scheduled for this week. Also, a jury trial was held last week in Judge Gregory Singer’s courtroom.

However, the order issued last month says that the majority of jury trials should be continued through March 27.

The order said the court, in response to the COVID-19 public health emergency, “wishes to continue its efforts to protect the health and safety of all persons participating in matters before the court...”

The common pleas court handles felony criminal cases and civil cases when a large amount of money is disputed. Coronavirus has been cited multiple times in Montgomery County court filings as to why jury trials —especially in murder and other high profile cases — should be continued. Most recently, defense attorneys for Victor Santana asked and were granted a continuance citing COVID-19.

Jury trials have been postponed due to the complexities of holding a trial that is safe for both jurors, parties and court staff. For example, before the pandemic, it wasn’t uncommon for jury pools to be upwards of 50 or 60 people, sometimes more. Before the pandemic, those individuals would sit in a room close to each other while they were either rejected or selected to serve during a trial.

Coronavirus has changed that. In the rare case of a jury trial being held in Montgomery County Common Pleas Court, the jury pool is usually separated into two rooms while jury selection takes place. Also, plexiglass has been installed between the witness stand, the judge, attorneys and jurors. When a witness finishes testifying, a thorough cleaning is done to try to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Also, masks are mandatory in the courthouse and signs mandating social distancing take place can be seen throughout the building.

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And while the pandemic has slowed the local justice system, it hasn’t stopped it completely. Dockets and other hearings have taken place, but much of that is done remotely via teleconference or other electronic means.

Meanwhile, Dayton Municipal Court, which handles misdemeanor cases and civil cases when $15,000 or less is in dispute, also issued an order for that court that says jury trials should be suspended when possible. The order says that it will expire on Jan. 8, but a new order is expected this week extending the pause, Dayton Municipal Court Administrator Ann Murray said.

Dayton Municipal Court continues to operate essential functions like jail arraignment, hearings for protection orders and trials in which the defendant is incarcerated, according to the previous orders.