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November 17, 2020

Va. Supreme Court OKs Fauquier jury trial plan

File Photo/Lawrence Emerson
After a nine-month hiatus, Commonwealth’s Attorney Scott Hook, his team of prosecutors and defense lawyers can again make their cases before juries.
I’m glad it’s approved. I’d like to see justice served, just as much as the defendants want their day in court.
— Commonwealth’s Attorney Scott C. Hook
By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Staff Journalist
After a nine-month interruption, Fauquier County’s Circuit Court recently learned that it can resume jury trials.

Last spring, jury trials and most other court proceedings across Virginia ceased because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The seven-member Virginia Supreme Court later required all circuit courts to develop plans that again would allow them to conduct jury trials — provided that they conform with state and federal government COVID-19 mandates and guidance.

The 20th Circuit includes Loudoun, Fauquier and Rappahannock counties.

In a Nov. 12 letter, Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons notified circuit court Chief Judge Douglas L. Fleming Jr. of the Fauquier plan’s approval.

“A panel of three justices in consultation with the Office of the Executive Secretary has approved your plan for the resumption of jury trials in the Fauquier County Circuit Court,” Justice Lemons wrote. “You may begin jury trials effective today, provided the jury trial is consistent with and in reasonable conformity with the plan.”

> Document at bottom of story

But it remains uncertain when jury trials will begin.

“The (circuit) court has some criminal cases on the docket for Nov. 23, 2020, that have been awaiting the scheduling of jury trials,” Deputy Clerk Helen Zaleski wrote in an email Tuesday. “On that date, the judge will determine how the jury trials will be scheduled.”

Fauquier Commonwealth’s Attorney Scott C. Hook served on a task force to develop the jury trial plan.

Headed by circuit court Judge James P. Fisher, who sits in Leesburg, the panel also included clerk’s office, county government, sheriff’s office, emergency services and public defender office representatives.

“I’m glad it’s approved,” Mr. Hook said of the 38-page document. “I’d like to see justice served, just as much as the defendants want their day in court.”

Ten to 15 potential jury trials remain on hold because of the pandemic, the prosecutor said.

The county court/office building at 40 Culpeper St. in Warrenton contains two courtrooms.

With an expanded jury box and other measures intended to protect participants, the south courtroom would be used for trials, according to the plan.

The slightly smaller north courtroom would be used for various trial-related purposes.

That means during jury trials “non-jury” court matters would be handled in the nearby John Barton Payne Community Hall at 2 Courthouse Square.

In minute detail, the jury trial plan covers the procedural gamut, including:

• Selection of the required 12 jurors per trial.

• Public and media access to the courtroom.

• Security.

• Placement of protective shields and signage.

• Sanitizing efforts.

• Electronic presentation of evidence and exhibits.

To streamline jury selection, for example, potential jurors will be mailed a COVID-19 screening questionnaire to identify those whose “service should be delayed until later in the year of excused,” the plan states.

The document adds: “The policy of the court will be to liberally grant deferrals and excuses.”

Because of social distancing requirements, only a dozen people will be permitted to observe trials from the courtroom gallery.

The prosecution and the defense teams each will get five seats.

“The news media will be provided at least two seats and advised to share a ‘pool coverage’ arrangement for inclusion of additional news outlets, if that becomes necessary,” the plan reads.

Under the plan, jury trials will “take a lot more time, because of all of the management,” Mr. Hook said.

Jury selection normally takes about 25 minutes and the trial begins that morning, the prosecutor said.

But COVID-19 means that “we’re going to have to bring in larger numbers” of potential jurors to select a panel of 12, “because we anticipate people will come in with sniffles or call in with sniffles. Just different things like that.”

While the screening questionnaire will address some of those issues, “things develop between then and the actual time of trial,” Mr. Hook said.

In some cases, jury selection could become a day-long affair, he suggested.

Overall, the prosecutor believes the plan will get the job done.

“I think it’s the best we can do for the situation we have,” Mr. Hook said. “The design of the (1970s-era) courtrooms just makes everything so difficult.

“We’re definitely going to have to get used to. There are going to be some kinks. And I’ve got to imagine once we put the plan into practice, we’re going to realize there are some things we need to adjust.”

So far, the state supreme court has approved 28 circuit court jury trial plans.

Contact Don Del Rosso at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or 540-270-0300.
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