The leaders of Cook County’s criminal justice system are planning on resuming jury trials in February, after months of courts being in a near-total shutdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The shutdown has deprived accused offenders of their right to a speedy trial and left victims waiting for justice. But the proposed reopening worries court employees who believe leaders are rushing the process and jeopardizing their health.
“People have been locked up, their liberation has been at stake since the coronavirus hit early last year,” said Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans. “We’d like to be able to resume jury trials and bench trials where we can institute social distancing, where we can provide adequate [personal protective equipment], where we can show the potential jurors how safe they would be.”
Sources say leaders are aiming to have the first jury selection happen on Feb. 16. And they say questionnaires were being sent out Friday to potential jurors asking about underlying health issues and other COVID-19 related concerns.
Evans and other county officials including State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and Public Defender Amy Campanelli met most recently on Wednesday to discuss the need to move cases forward and the logistics of making it happen.
Foxx said it was prompted by the Illinois Supreme Court, which asked Evans to lay out a plan for resuming jury trials.
While some court operations, like bond court, have continued over video conferencing and in a small number of in-person hearings, there hasn’t been a jury trial in a Cook County courtroom in nine months.
The result, Cook County attorneys say, is thousands of people whose lives are basically on hold, victims and the accused alike. There are more than 9,000 people either in jail or on electronic monitoring while awaiting trial, according to data from the Cook County sheriff, compared to fewer than 8,000 in pre-trial custody at the same time in 2020.
Campanelli said the jail population is at a level where it’s not possible to keep detainees safe from contracting COVID-19.
“We have to start taking care of this backlog, and the only way to do that is to do trials,” Campenelli said. “We have been working to get the rooms ready for this, and the rooms are ready. So we have to ask the jurors to come in.”
Evans said the court system would provide personal protective equipment, including masks and face shields to people coming into the courthouse.
He also said court staff have already made extensive plans to best allow for social distancing during jury trials. He said the plan for the main criminal courthouse in Little Village is to use three separate courtrooms for each trial. One courtroom would be for the judge, attorneys and jury, with jurors sitting in the gallery of the courtroom and witnesses seated in the jury box to allow for maximum space. The second courtroom would be used for jurors to take breaks, eat lunch and deliberate. The third courtroom would house the press and the public, watching the proceedings on a video feed.
Evans said they’ve also explored using other venues that are currently vacant because of the pandemic, including the McCormick Place and privately-owned theaters.
“I am aiming for trying to do it as early as February. I’m not as committed to a specific date as I am to the process of making certain that everybody would be safe,” Evans said.
Evans said part of his plan to convince people to show up for jury duty is to create videos and post them online so potential jurors can see the social distancing measures and other precautions in place to keep them safe from the novel coronavirus.
“They could see that we would be taking people’s temperature before people come in, that we would be exercising social distancing even in the elevators,” Evans said. “So once they see all of that, they would feel more comfortable about coming. They know that everybody is entitled to [a jury trial] and they are needed desperately, but they want to be safe … and we wouldn’t bring them into a court facility until they can be safe there.”
Campanelli said her office had already started identifying cases for the chief judge that would be best suited for the first round of jury trials, focusing on cases in which defendants have been locked up in jail for the longest, cases in which they are ready to go to trial and cases in which all the witnesses are local.
Employees of the county court system expressed fear and frustration about the plans.
Several spoke on the condition of anonymity, because they were critical of their bosses and worried about getting in trouble for speaking to the press without permission.
“Oh God no,” responded one attorney with the public defender’s office when asked if she believed the court system was ready to safely host jury trials.
The attorney described getting at least one email per day with an announcement about some staffer or another contracting COVID-19.
“Someone in that building has COVID every single day. And with this new strain going around, you can’t possibly think it’s not all going to fall apart,” she said, referring to the new fast-spreading COVID-19 variant.
She also expressed bewilderment at the sudden push to resume jury trials. She said for nearly a year judges had told her they would not be holding trials anytime soon.
“We’ve gone from them saying ‘no this isn’t going to happen until spring or summer,’ to all of a sudden we get an email saying ‘game on we’re picking our first jury on Feb. 16,’ ” the attorney said. “I don’t think enough thought has gone into it.”
She said it felt like leaders were rushing through literal life and death decisions. And she wondered whether juries would actually take the time to deliberate after a trial closed or whether everyone would just be rushing to get out of the room.
An assistant state’s attorney said leaders have so far not done enough to keep employees safe from COVID-19, giving the staffer “zero confidence” in the plan to resume jury trials.
“They aren’t even close to having [COVID-19] under control, yet they want to force members of the public to come into the courtrooms for hours at a time,” the assistant state’s attorney said.
Foxx said county officials were having extensive conversations about all aspects of resuming jury trials.
“We did a walkthrough last week to see where the Plexiglas was, where we could sit jurors, how we could have jury deliberations,” Foxx said. “All of the basic fundamentals that I think schools are talking about right now, or offices are talking about, are things that we’re very much concerned with.”
As an example of the level of detail in the planning, Foxx said they had drilled down on where and how jurors would eat lunch and how they would be kept safe even with their masks down to eat.
Campanelli said county leaders were doing everything possible to ensure the safety of staff and the general public. But she also said it just is not possible for the county to wait for the pandemic to end to resume normal court operations. She said she does not believe the state supreme court’s suspension of the constitutional right to a speedy trial would hold up if challenged at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Campanelli said she would accommodate special requests by her staff, and she believes they will have precautions in place to keep everyone safe. But she also acknowledged that she’s “not gonna be able to tell everybody, ‘oh, you’re perfectly safe and you’re not going to come down with COVID.’ Nobody can say that.”
“I’m sure that my staff are worried … but they also understand that their job, as public defenders, is to make sure the client’s rights are not violated,” Campanelli said. “We have PPE. We have everything we need to keep our staff safe, and we have everything we need to keep the jurors safe and the witnesses safe. So worry cannot trump constitutional rights.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated what day county officials most recently met to discuss resuming jury trials. They met on Wednesday.