How some suburban courts plan to resume jury trials, keep people safe
When DuPage County resumes jury trials July 20, felony judge John Kinsella will have to get used to occasionally being moved out of "his" courtroom.
Room 4000 is the biggest in the DuPage County Judicial Center in Wheaton, and the only one large enough to allow for a 30-person jury pool while maintaining social distancing.
To do that, officials built a much larger jury box with 14 chairs spaced 6 feet apart, while also providing space in the courtroom for tables for prosecution and defense teams, and for lawyers to walk while questioning witnesses, presenting evidence and addressing the jury. Every other row of the 108-seat gallery is chained off, and people will sit in every other chair.
The courtroom remodeling is one of the steps Chief Judge Daniel Guerin, the circuit's judges and the county's facilities manager have taken so criminal jury trials can resume safely amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
"(That) is our first priority," Guerin said Thursday, noting civil cases won't have jury trials until next year. "It's probably been the greatest challenge we faced. Social distancing just shrinks everything down."
DuPage County's were among the suburban courthouses that ground nearly to a halt in mid-March, with some hearing only emergency motions -- orders of protection and child abuse and neglect cases -- in person. Nearly all other cases were continued for months.
Since June 1, those courthouses have expanded operations, but each has its own time frame to resume jury trials.
McHenry County was the first in Illinois to host a jury trial, on June 1. Kane County will begin criminal jury trials Aug. 3 and civil cases Sept. 8. No timeline has been set for jury trials to begin in Lake and Cook counties.
Court officials in McHenry, DuPage and Kane counties want to ensure defendants can exercise their constitutional right to a timely trial before their peers, and at the same time ease anxiety and safety concerns and keep people safe.
To do that, officials will have security personnel take the temperature of all people entering the courthouses, require everyone to wear masks and use smaller-than-normal jury pools to allow for social distancing.
In DuPage, Guerin noted that more than a courtroom had to be changed. The jury deliberation room was too small, so an old library/lounge was cleaned out and repurposed. And, when the jury goes on break during a trial, it will be split in to two groups.
Judges also have been told to avoid scheduling two jury trials at once.
Jury service notices included a brochure explaining the courthouse COVID-19 precautions.
In Kane County, 12-person jury trials for felony and misdemeanor cases will be scheduled for Mondays and Wednesdays in courtroom 201, the largest courtroom in the Kane County Judicial Center in St. Charles.
Jurors will be 6 feet apart and seated in the audience benches; people interested in the case will be able to watch on closed-circuit television in another room, Chief Judge Clint Hull said.
Under that schedule, court officials hope to complete a Monday trial before beginning another one on a Wednesday, meaning court could run to as late as 8 p.m. on a Monday or Tuesday.
"Every minute is important," said Hull, a former prosecutor. "We have to constantly adapt, but we know based on everything we've done, we can hold jury trials. People didn't want to come in for jury duty before the COVID virus. We want them to understand all the things we're doing to ensure their health will be taken care of."
DuPage County also called fewer people than normal for the July 20 jury pool. Of the 175 who received notices, few have called the jury commission office with concerns about serving, said Sue Makovec, assistant courts administrator.
In Kane County, 150 to 160 people are usually summoned; next month, it will be about 46, Hull said.
McHenry County usually summons 150 people, but that's down to 52 or 53 now, said Dan Wallis, court administrator.
Court officials are providing potential jurors more information about safety measures in the initial jury summons. Jurors with potential health risks should alert the jury commission and will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
In McHenry County, Wallis said court officials are calling jurors ahead of time.
"Our goal is to work with people," Wallis said. "We're trying to overcommunicate. We don't want 52 people upset because they're here. We call them, have conversations with them to make sure they know exactly what's going on."
In Kane County, Hull said court officials also are preparing informational videos for jurors.
"If somebody has a concern for their health or safety, there is a mechanism to tell us what their concern is and based upon that, they may or may not be excused," he said. "We're not looking to be heavy-handed."
DuPage County officials say they will take a similar approach.
Wallis said he and his colleagues in McHenry County were a little nervous no one would show up for jury duty June 1, when the 22nd Circuit held the first jury trial in the state since mid-March.
But in the end, only two of the 53 people summoned failed to show.
Officials have one courtroom in the courthouse in Woodstock that is large enough to host a trial where jurors are spread out; the jury assembly waiting room also can be converted into a courtroom if needed.
In his 20-year career, Wallis could recall only one case where a juror flat-out refused to serve, and those who do could theoretically be held in contempt of court.
"We've been a little more inventive. When June 1 came, we did very well with our opening," he said. "People understand we're taking their safety seriously."
• Daily Herald staff writers Doug Graham and Barb Vitello contributed to this report.