What prospective jurors need to know as jury trials resume in Cook County
The reprieve from jury duty at the Rolling Meadows Third Municipal District Courthouse is about to end.
Monday marks the resumption of criminal jury trials in Rolling Meadows and in other Cook County districts, more than 13 months after the Cook County circuit court suspended them in March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Jury trials resumed about six weeks ago at the George N. Leighton Criminal Courthouse in Chicago and the Fifth Municipal District Courthouse in Bridgeview.
To keep jurors, participants and courthouse employees safe, special measures will accompany the trial of 45-year-old Guillermo Araiza, who's charged with sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl in 2018 in Rolling Meadows. This and subsequent jury trials will take place in Rolling Meadows' courtroom 110, which has been modified to accommodate 14 physically distanced jurors (including two alternates). Capacity will be limited to 28 people, including jurors and courtroom personnel, said Rolling Meadows Presiding Judge Jill Cerone-Marisie.
"Precautions are being put in place so that jurors will want to come and do their civic duty," she said adding that those selected to serve will receive face shields, masks, pens, notebooks and hand sanitizer.
Only one jury trial will take place at a time in the building, Cerone-Marisie said.
Other precautions include the installation of Plexiglas partitions, microphones and cameras, which will be trained on the witness, judge and the well of the courtroom with sound and images streamed to a multipurpose room set up for spectators. Defendants who are jailed or on electronic monitoring will get priority in scheduling trials, Cerone-Marisie said.
Defendants, especially those in custody, have been frustrated by the suspension of jury trials, said Assistant Cook County Public Defender Beth Tarzia, chief of the public defender's Rolling Meadows office. However, defendants understand it's important to have jurors who want to serve, Tarzia said.
"We want people to feel safe when they come (to court). We don't want them to feel their lives are at risk," she said.
Tarzia was skeptical when Cook County courts shifted to virtual hearings, but was amazed by public defender clients' efforts to comply.
"I've been amazed our clients have shown the resilience to find someone with a laptop, cellphone or internet access," she said. "It's so much better than I thought it would be."
According to the chief judge's office, "the use of videoconferencing and teleconferencing for court procedures has been so successful and popular that judges are discussing continuing its use in some situations after the threat of COVID-19 lifts."
Cerone-Marisie acknowledges the pandemic slowed judicial proceedings. She says factors contributing to delays include challenges in obtaining discovery materials, evidence testing and securing the appearance of experts and other witnesses.
At the time pandemic restrictions were implemented in March 2020, 18 felonies were set for trial in Rolling Meadows, seven of them before juries, according to Cerone-Marisie. After March 2020, there were 14 additional trial demands, three for jury trials, she said.
Half the cases set for bench trial have gone to trial or defendants withdrew their trial demand and pleaded guilty. Since the beginning of 2021, more than 100 in-person bench trials have taken place in Rolling Meadows misdemeanor and felony divisions combined, she said.
Cook County criminal courts combined disposed of 7,897 felony criminal cases -- by bench trial, guilty plea or dismissal of charges -- between March 17, 2020, and March 5, 2021, according to a spokeswoman for Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans. By comparison, Cook County criminal courts disposed of 20,545 felony criminal cases between March 17, 2019 and March 5, 2020, the year before the pandemic.
In a March letter summoning prospective jurors for duty, Evans reminded them that the "right to a trial by jury is a cornerstone of our democracy and jury service is one of the most important things that you can do as a citizen."
He assured them courthouse personnel will take "every reasonable precaution" to protect their health and safety.