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Crime & Justice
Coronavirus news and updates about the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

How To Be COVID-19 Safe As Jury Trials Resume In NC

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NC Superior Court Judge Alan Thornburg
As jury trials resume in North Carolina, courthouses like Buncombe County's (pictured here) are reconfiguring to accommodate COVID-19 precautions.

As jury trials resume in North Carolina, courts are trying to figure out how to accommodate COVID-19 safety measures to keep court employees safe.

“The court system has had cases among clerks, magistrates, bailiffs and in one county we had an outbreak among the bailiffs and the question is could we have enough manpower of people who are well to actually run court and it got pretty close,” said Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin, who presides over cases in Burke and Caldwell counties.

With jury trials resuming across the state this month, Ervin had to figure out how to run jury trials and social distance at the same time. Every courtroom is different and some trials aren’t even taking place in a courthouse because their rooms are too small to safely fit everyone needed for a jury trial.

“If you’ve got very large courtrooms or very large jury assembly rooms, your life is a lot easier than if you have small facilities,” Ervin said.

Caldwell County has a courthouse with a room that can fit 35 people socially distanced. But no such luck with Burke County’s courthouse.

“I, unfortunately, have the title of 'COVID-19 Coordinator' for Judicial District 25A,” Ervin said.

What that means is, for a judge, Ervin knows an unusual amount about empty, big-box stores and their leasing rates. After all, he says the building block for a socially distanced courtroom is a big, open space.

“We had one that looked promising, and then we kind of came to the conclusion that we weren’t satisfied the roof didn’t leak," he said. "Another thing we looked at were high school or middle school auditoriums and gymnasiums.”

But the auditoriums often had fabric seats that were hard to clean and gymnasium acoustics aren’t good. The city of Morganton ended up providing the lobby of its municipal auditorium for jury selection. And Burke County has made its Foothills Conference Center available for criminal district court. The pandemic has left both of those spaces empty since there’s little demand for live events and conferences.

“We’ve got plexiglass between the defendant and the defense lawyer at the defense table in Burke County," Ervin said. "There’s a lot of dispute among the lawyers as to whether they want that or not."

For one, it makes whispering back and forth harder.

Burke County began jury trials this week. They’re still working things out. Ervin says screening potential jurors for security and COVID-19 symptoms was taking too long.

“Cause what you really don’t want is a bunch of jurors standing out in the rain,” he said.

Most of the extra money it takes to run court outside of a courthouse goes to the extra cleaning and maintenance. Those are covered by federal coronavirus funds that expire at the end of next month. If they don’t get renewed, Ervin’s not sure what the plan is.

“I’ve offered to have bake sales and cookie drives,” he said.

Judge Robert Ervin is the husband of WFAE reporter Dana Miller Ervin.

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