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Cook County set to resume jury trials as first notices are sent out since pandemic closures

Tuesday, February 23, 2021
Chicago Tribune
by Megan Crepeau

Jury notices have been sent out for Cook County’s first pandemic-era jury trial, Chief Judge Timothy Evans’ office confirmed Tuesday.

Sources told the Tribune that potential jurors are being instructed to report for duty March 22.

 

By that time, the normally bustling Leighton Criminal Court Building will have gone more than a year without a jury trial. The most recent high-profile verdict — a conviction in the slaying of a Chicago police commander — was handed down in March 2020, just a few days before nearly all court proceedings were paused due to COVID-19.

While no specifics have yet been disclosed about which case might be going to trial that week, sources told the Tribune of at least two that were being considered for the first spot in line. One is a gun case that stems from a street stop in Bronzeville; another involves a man who allegedly burglarized a Starbucks in the South Loop.

And the gun case may not see trial after all. A recent court filing from Cook County prosecutors acknowledged that the judge told them the case would be going to trial March 22, but they requested an earlier court date to potentially “resolve the matter short of trial,” that is, execute a plea agreement.

A letter sent to prospective jurors and obtained by the Tribune assures them that everyone entering the courthouse must wear a mask and pass a health screening. Hand sanitizer and extra face masks will be available to potential jurors for free. Sworn jurors will sit at safe distances from each other during the trial, in either the jury box or the spectator’s gallery.

 

And the minimum age for jury service deferment was lowered from 70 to 65, the letter states.

“Jury trials involve sacrifice from citizens called upon to serve. Only those with extreme hardships should seek to be excused,” the letter states.

There has been little movement on many cases in the past year. Each felony trial judge takes the bench only every other day to conduct videoconferenced court calls, the bulk of which often simply involve assigning each case its next court date. At least one judge has urged prosecutors in her courtroom to make plea offers on each and every case in front of her in an effort to clear out a formidable backlog, as cases keep coming in but very few are closed.

A jury box in the Leighton Criminal Court Building.
A jury box in the Leighton Criminal Court Building. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

And the pandemic left officials with the unenviable task of balancing public safety with defendants’ right to a speedy trial. Ultimately, the state Supreme Court effectively allowed for the suspension of speedy-trial deadlines, leaving defendants without leverage to demand a trial by jury.

Concrete plans for holding the next jury trial have not been disclosed. But officials have said they are considering a setup in which each trial will involve three separate courtrooms at the Leighton Criminal Court Building.

One would host the actual proceedings, and jurors will sit at safe distances in the gallery area usually reserved for spectators. In another courtroom, jurors could eat lunch, take breaks and deliberate during the trial. And in the third, the public could gather to watch proceedings on a livestream.

The chief judge’s office has also considered holding trials at McCormick Place or the Thompson Center, Evans said in an address to Cook County officials late last month.

And after some initial confusion about how and when Cook County attorneys would get vaccinated against COVID-19, both prosecutors and public defenders have been deemed eligible to get inoculated under an Illinois State Police program for first responders.

Revving up such a long-dormant process will not be without its challenges; in each case, witnesses will need to be located and prepared, jurors will need to be summoned and assured of safety protocols.

Grand juries, which have been convening throughout the pandemic, might be a preview of the response for regular jury duty. Hundreds of summonses to grand jury duty are sent out each month. Generally, fewer than 100 people have shown up for selection each month, sources told the Tribune. But that still has been enough to seat jurors.

While a few jury trials were conducted in Chicago’s federal courthouse over the summer, they have since been suspended again in the Northern District of Illinois until early April.

mcrepeau@chicagotribune.com

Megan Crepeau

Megan Crepeau

Chicago Tribune
CONTACT

Megan Crepeau is the Tribune's Cook County criminal courts reporter, covering trials, policy and legal affairs from her post at one of the nation's busiest courthouses.


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