If you live in Chicago or suburban Cook County, you could be getting a letter in your mailbox soon ordering you to show up for jury duty.
The first round of jury summonses have been sent out, along with a letter from Chief Judge Timothy Evans, to prospective jurors outlining the COVID-19 protections in place at county courthouses. It’s a major step toward resuming jury trials in the county for the first time in nearly a year.
The goal is to hold the first criminal jury trial at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse in Chicago starting on March 22.
Cook County’s massive court system has been all but shutdown since last March because of the novel coronavirus. That shutdown has deprived accused offenders of their right to a speedy trial and left victims waiting for justice. But some who work in the court system are concerned about the risks of packing people into courtrooms while the pandemic is still raging.
In the letter, Evans assures prospective jurors that “every reasonable precaution will be taken to protect the health and safety of the jurors, parties, witnesses, lawyers and court staff during jury selection and the trial to follow.”
To do that, according to Evans, everyone entering the courthouse will be required to answer health questions and submit to a temperature check.
And Evans promised that jurors would be seated at least six feet apart. Once the trials start, multiple courtrooms will be used “to achieve proper distancing,” and jurors will not be confined to the jury boxes. Instead they’ll sit in the comparatively large galleries where the public usually sits. The courts will also provide sanitizer and masks, according to the letter.
The chief judge’s office has also posted photos online to demonstrate the COVID-19 precautions, including socially-distanced seating and plexiglass separating the jury from the attorneys and defendants.
“The right to a trial by jury is a cornerstone of our democracy, and jury service is one of the most important things you can do as a citizen,” Evans wrote in the letter.
The Illinois Supreme Court suspended the constitutional right to a speedy trial last year because of the pandemic. That order still stands, however the state’s highest court recently asked all of the circuit courts in the state to submit plans for resuming criminal trials “when it is safe to do so.”
Cook County court spokeswoman Mary Wisniewski said Cook County submitted its plan on Jan. 15.
At the start of February, Evans told Cook County commissioners that if he had it his way, trials wouldn’t resume until everyone participating, including defendants, attorneys and jurors, had the opportunity to be vaccinated. When asked who was pushing for jury trials to resume, Evans referred to the Supreme Court’s request.
Supreme Court spokesman Christopher Bonjean said “no time frame was suggested or mandated” for any of the state’s courts.
Cook County attorneys say the year without trials has meant thousands of people whose lives are basically on hold, victims and the accused alike. They describe clients who were weeks away from trial before the pandemic and who will end up waiting an extra year or more for their day in court. People locked up in Cook County jail awaiting trial are at greater risk of contracting a potentially deadly disease, and pandemic precautions make it harder for them to talk with their attorneys and aid their own defense.
As of Feb. 22, about 5,400 people were in the jail and another 3,700 were on electronic monitoring awaiting trial. Taken together that’s 1,000 more people under the custody of the sheriff compared to the same date in 2020.
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said the court system is in “uncharted territory.”
“This is the first time that the courts have been closed down for this long, I believe, in the history of the courts,” Foxx said.
This story is a part of the Solving for Chicago collaborative effort by newsrooms to cover the workers deemed “essential” during COVID-19 and how the pandemic is reshaping work and employment.
It is a project of the Local Media Foundation with support from the Google News Initiative and the Solutions Journalism Network. The 19 partners span print, digital and broadcasting and include WBEZ, WTTW, the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Defender, La Raza, Shaw Media, Block Club Chicago, Borderless Magazine, the South Side Weekly, Injustice Watch, Austin Weekly News, Wednesday Journal, Forest Park Review, Riverside Brookfield Landmark, Windy City Times, the Hyde Park Herald, Inside Publications, Loop North News and Chicago Music Guide.