Cook County Courts Pass Reopening Test For First COVID-19 Era Trial

WBEZ
Teacher Cathy Kattner from Chicago’s North Center neighborhood was one of 56 people to show up for jury duty at Cook County's criminal court building Monday for the first jury trial in the COVID-19 era. Patrick Smith / WBEZ
WBEZ
Teacher Cathy Kattner from Chicago’s North Center neighborhood was one of 56 people to show up for jury duty at Cook County's criminal court building Monday for the first jury trial in the COVID-19 era. Patrick Smith / WBEZ

Cook County Courts Pass Reopening Test For First COVID-19 Era Trial

Fifty-six brave souls showed up to the criminal courthouse on Chicago’s Southwest Side on Monday to serve as jurors for Cook County’s first jury trial in more than a year.

Suzana Ristov was one of them. She paused for a moment in front of the court steps before going inside, feeling nervous about how people would be seated.

“Did I want to come? No,” she said. “Do I have to come? Yes.”

Ristov and the 55 others were among the 600 people who received summonses so Cook County could seat just one trial this week. Ristov and other potential jurors said they showed up for a lot of reasons — because it’s their civic duty, because they believe in the right to a trial by jury, because they don’t want to live in constant fear of the coronavirus. And because they didn’t think they had a choice.

The trial this week, over a 2019 burglary case involving an alleged garage break-in, is meant as a test, to see if jurors will actually show up with the pandemic still raging.

Mary Wisniewski, spokeswoman for Chief Judge Timothy Evans, said the court passed. A potential juror turnout of less than 10% may not sound like much, but it’s more than enough for a jury pool. Wisniewski called it a “great” response and said it could be proof that the court will soon be able to resume more normal operations.

None of the prospective jurors who spoke with WBEZ this morning were fully vaccinated against COVID-19. But most said they weren’t especially worried about catching the virus in the courthouse.

“You know, there’s a certain element of risk in anything that we do,” said Terry Fischer, who drove more than 30 miles in from his home in Streamwood to perform his civic duty. “But at the same token, I can’t live in a hole the whole time. I’ve got to come out for air once in a while.”

Fischer also said he was satisfied by the safety precautions the county was taking, as outlined in a letter to prospective jurors from the chief judge.

On their way in the building, prospective jurors had their temperatures taken. Once inside they were given masks, and hand sanitizing stations were all over the courthouse. The county also set up plexiglass around the courtroom and rearranged the seating so people would be socially distant.

Still, teacher Cathy Kattner, from Chicago’s North Center neighborhood, said she was very nervous heading inside the courthouse at 26th Street and California Avenue.

“Because I pretty much live in … my own little bubble at home. And when I go to work we’re just very, very cautious,” Kattner said.

Kattner said that fear might make her too distracted to be an effective juror, a concern that some prosecutors and defense attorneys have raised in the lead up to reopening.

It took more than five hours for a jury to be selected in the burglary case, the only trial scheduled for Cook County this week. Opening arguments are slated for Tuesday, and the trial is expected to last two days.

The 2019 case is part of a massive case backlog that’s built up over a yearlong pandemic shutdown.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office said there are more than 28,000 pending cases right now — about 35% higher than the number before COVID-19 forced an end to normal court operations.

Cook County hasn’t had a jury trial since March 2020 because of COVID-19, and the constitutional right to a speedy trial is suspended statewide.

Now that things are starting to return to normal, court officials will be tasked with resolving the cases of thousands of people left in limbo because of the shutdown. They will have to do so in a court system that is still severely hampered by the coronavirus and that even in normal times can be agonizingly slow for defendants and victims alike.

As of Monday, more than 5,500 people were in the Cook County jail, and another 3,500 were on electronic monitoring awaiting trial. County officials significantly reduced the jail’s population in early 2020 to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19 inside the jail. But with new cases constantly coming in and almost no way to resolve them, the jail population is back to pre-pandemic levels.

The county started vaccinating jail detainees at the beginning of February.

“I was surprised to hear that they weren’t open already,” prospective juror Kathryn Huth said on Monday morning in front of the criminal courthouse. “I mean, it’s been a long time for somebody who wants a jury trial to not be able to get one.

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.