Misdemeanor jury trials to resume Nov. 2, felony trials will not begin until 2021

Oct 21, 2020

All cases that would otherwise be held in Naknek will be held in the larger Dillingham courthouse to accomodate social distancing. Hearings will still be open to the public, and will be streamed online or available via phone.

 

The Courthouse in Dillingham Oct. 14, 2020
Credit Brian Venua/KDLG

After a months-long delay, jury trials for misdemeanors in Alaska will resume on Nov. 2. The state’s courts have not held jury trials since March due to COVID-19. More than 300 court cases around Bristol Bay have backed up since the start of the pandemic, though some hearings have been conducted over the phone and via video conference.

Joel Bolger, the chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court, said that misdemeanor trials, which only require six jurors, will allow courtrooms to have social distancing. Felony trials require 12 jurors, so juries won’t be able to hear them until 2021.

“We will probably not consider doing any felony trials until after the first of the year,” said Bolger. “If there are extraordinary circumstances the parties can ask the presiding judge to allow a trial, otherwise felonies is something we will wait and see on.”

Bolger said safety is a top priority for the return of jury trials.

“For any kind of trial, masks will be required in the courtroom,” he said. “We have Plexiglas shields in front of the place people are generally talking, there will be a temperature screening and the same thing will be done for everyone that participates in a trial including the judge and the court personnel and the attorneys.”

Bolger also said the courts are increasing written and online communication in order to limit travel.

“We will try to do more questioning of jurors either through a written questionnaire or online questionnaire or by telephone or by videoconference before they are required to travel so that we can make sure people don’t travel unnecessarily,” he said.

Those measures will help determine if a person needs to come to the courthouse at all. 

In Dillingham, jurors who are told to come to the courthouse will be asked to stay in their cars, where court staff will bring them additional paperwork. Jurors will complete the paperwork in their cars and return it to court staff to be sorted and reviewed. Christina Reigh, a superior court judge in Bristol Bay, said court staff will then excuse them until they are called for further questioning.

“They’ll basically be told, ‘keep your phone on you. You’re on jury duty right now but right now you’re doing it remotely,’” she said. “Then the judge and the parties will go through the questionnaires and we will then call people and have them individually come in to be questioned by the court and the lawyers.”

Jurors will be questioned individually instead of in a group. Reigh said this should limit the number of people in the courtroom until the court is ready for trial.

“Once we go forward with trial, all of the people who will be in the courtroom will be the jurors, who will be spread throughout the whole courtroom, which gives a lot more space than just the jury box, the parties and their lawyers and witnesses, and then the judge,” said Reigh. “We’re going to really limit who can even be in the courtroom.”

To accommodate social distancing, all cases that would otherwise be held in Naknek will instead be held in the larger Dillingham courthouse. Hearings are still open to the public, but in an effort to limit in-person traffic during trials, they will also be streamed online or available via phone. 

For more information or questions about the courts’ reopening, you can contact the Alaska Courts at (907) 264-0819 or email Mara Rabinowitz, the special project coordinator, at mrabinowitz@akcourts.us.