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COVID’S impact on Washoe District Courts

Published: Feb. 9, 2021 at 5:04 PM PST
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RENO, Nev. (KOLO) - Last September a rare jury trial took place at the Washoe County Courthouse. In light of the pandemic, plexiglass was installed in the jury box, and because of limited access to the building, jurors were able to convene in hallways and discuss the case.

But the move was short lived.

“And then it got shut down by the Governor’s orders,” says Judge Scott Freeman, Washoe District Court Chief Judge. “Should the Governor order start relaxing, we have a plan in, our court in Washoe County, in place to recommence jury trials, both criminal and civil,” says Judge Freeman.

Judge Freeman says while jury trials have been put on the back burner for now, other court action has been conducted on formats like Zoom. Arraignments, sentencing, and even civil cases have done quite well.

Judge Freeman says certain interviews through Zoom may stay even after the pandemic subsides.

“Now we can have say, an insurance representative who might be involved in a settlement case appear by Zoom from across the country,” says the Judge. “And I can see them face to face have a chance to talk to them. I have a chance to talk to them about the value of a case they might be able to settle. So monetarily with those types of representatives it has been an asset,” he says.

Freeman says such Zoom interviews during a jury trial would probably not work for a variety of reasons. “Criminal defendants have a right of confrontation, it is in the 6th Amendment,” says Judge Freeman. “The right to confront those who have accused you. And sometimes if not most of the time, criminal defendants, sometimes prosecutors want that jury to see the face of the expert as they are asking cross examination questions. Which sometimes can get lost in the video,” he says.

With all the technology, innovation, adaptation, nothing he says can replace a jury trial in its traditional format. Which means the judiciary will need to be vaccinated along with support and security staff.

County residents he says must feel safe to serve on a jury and believe they won’t become infected while doing so. As the county gets back to normalcy says Judge Freeman, the courts will follow.

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