Montgomery County court suspends jury trials for rest of year

The Montgomery County Common Pleas Court suspended all jury trials for the rest of the year except in cases where unique and unavoidable circumstances are presented. Pictured is a jury trial from June where Montgomery County Common Pleas Court Judge Mary Montgomery presided over a jury trial while wearing a mask. MARSHALL GORBY\STAFF
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The Montgomery County Common Pleas Court suspended all jury trials for the rest of the year except in cases where unique and unavoidable circumstances are presented. Pictured is a jury trial from June where Montgomery County Common Pleas Court Judge Mary Montgomery presided over a jury trial while wearing a mask. MARSHALL GORBY\STAFF

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Order allows judges to have trials when 'unique and unavoidable circumstances are presented'

A Montgomery County Common Pleas Court order “suspending all jury trials” through the end of the year in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic was issued with the unanimous consent of all 11 judges.

The order issued by Administrative Judge Gregory Singer allows judges to hold jury trials that involve unique and unavoidable circumstances.

The order says it was issued to protect the health and safety of everyone involved when a jury trial takes place, including court staff and members of the public involved in trials.

For example, it’s not uncommon for potential jury pools be upwards of 50 or 60 people. 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.

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The Montgomery County order suspending trials is in contrast to what other courts in the area have done. Dayton Municipal Court has begun scheduling trials again, and trials are ongoing in Warren County and Miami County.

Montgomery County Common Pleas Court handles felony criminal cases and civil cases when a large amount of money is disputed.

The court first suspended jury trials in March at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, then extended the order in May and again for June through July.

However, the court has held a handful of criminal jury trials since early June. About a dozen jury trials have been scheduled to go between June and August, but some of them were not needed because of plea agreements before a trial began.

The order says that jury trials are permitted “when unique and unavoidable circumstances are presented and considered on a case-by-case basis, including speedy trial provisions, in which case a judge shall determine whether such trials will proceed, provided the judge follows the court’s full and conscientious COVID-19 mitigation protocols, including the enhanced cleaning of court facilities, the personal hygiene and health conditions for all participants and consideration of other public health protocols.”

The order might not have a large impact on the local justice system, University of Dayton Law Professor Thomas Hagel told the Dayton Daily News, because jury trials are not as common as some think and most cases plead out before reaching a jury.

“It simply backs up the number of jury trials that the judges are ultimately going to have to address,” Hagel said. “There is really no problem if the defense goes along with it.”

In an event the defense wants the trial to happen now, the order allows for a judge to decide if it should.

The Montgomery County Prosecutor’s Office said in a statement that the order does not change its commitment to get justice for victims. The prosecutor’s office noted that it has had jury trials despite the previous orders and it feels no pressure to make any lucrative plea deals or dismiss any cases because of the coronavirus.

A message left for the Montgomery County Public Defender’s Office wasn’t returned.

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The court has taken other day-to-day precautions in an attempt to stop the spread of coronavirus. Signs are posted throughout the courthouse mandating masks be worn while in public spaces and that everyone practice social distance while inside. Also, the court bought air cleaning machines for courtrooms for jury trials, and they are in use during dockets and court hearings throughout the day.

Other courts have continued more normal schedules.

Warren County has had four jury trials since June and has four more scheduled before Sept. 3, Warren County Common Pleas Court Administrator Jennifer Burnside said. Precautions are being taken, she said.

“Each judge sends out a letter (to a potential juror). We let them know if they have any concern about serving to please let us know. So the judges are working with them individually,” Burnside said. “And then we have streamlined our check-in, we do things in smaller groups and don’t use the jury rooms. We use rooms with more space for when they deliberate.”

She said there is no backlog of cases in Warren County Common Pleas Court.

In Miami County, Court Administrator Stacy Smith said the common pleas court is working with the health district and the Ohio Supreme court and is not postponing jury trials at this time. The trials are taking place with safety precautions implemented throughout the courthouse.