Jury trials paused as COVID-19 cases rise

November 16, 2020

Jury trials across Delaware have been paused as COVID-19 cases rise across the state.

Courts had been preparing to hold jury trials with restrictions, but only one trial was actually held – a three-day driving under the influence trial in Kent County, said Sean O’Sullivan, chief of community relations for the courts. A jury trial scheduled for Nov. 9 in Sussex Superior Court was resolved beforehand, he said.

Delaware Court facilities remain open, O’Sullivan said, but will transition back to Phase Two restrictions. Grand jury proceedings, bench trials, and hearings will continue.

On Nov. 16, Chief Justice Collins J. Seitz Jr., in consultation with the other Delaware Supreme Court justices and presiding judges of all state courts, announced Delaware Courts will postpone jury trials and transition back to Phase Two of the Delaware Courts’ four-phase reopening plan.

The change is being made based on public health guidance and advice from the courts’ infectious diseases expert, Dr. Alfred Bacon, court officials said.

“There has been a concerning rise in the number of COVID-19 cases in Delaware, putting a strain on the state’s healthcare system. We believe it is prudent at this time to pause our reopening plans until the situation stabilizes. By stepping back to Phase Two restrictions, we will once again limit the number of people at our court facilities – both visitors and staff – to limit the possible spread of COVID-19. It is important to note that the Delaware Courts will not be closing to the public like we did in March. Court facilities will remain open to the public. The transition back to Phase Two means that some restrictions that had been lifted in October will be re-imposed,” said Seitz in a press release.

“Based on the advice we are receiving, and what other state courts are doing, we think stepping back to Phase Two is the safest course of action until after the holiday season. We will continue to monitor the situation, and reassess the public health concerns after the first of the year. The health and safety of judicial branch employees, the Delaware Bar, and the public is our top priority.”

During Phase Two, officials said, Delaware Court facilities will remain open to the public, but staffing levels and building capacity will decrease from 75 percent to 50 percent. In addition, no more than 10 visitors will be allowed in any courtroom. Proceedings involving nonincarcerated individuals will continue, including nonjury civil and criminal trials. In most cases, officials said, this means Delaware courts will continue to conduct business whenever possible through video or audio conferencing technology, and employees will work remotely. Delaware courts also will be available to handle emergency matters, whether civil or criminal.

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