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Jury selection in NYS suspended due to COVID-19 rise

Sign pointing to the jurors' entrance at the

Sign pointing to the jurors' entrance at the Arthur M. Cromarty Court Complex in Riverhead. Credit: Kevin P Coughlin

No new jury panels will be picked across New York State because of the uptick in coronavirus cases, court officials announced Friday.

But panelists already serving on grand juries or trial juries can keep up their duties, and ongoing criminal and civil trials will continue until they're finished, New York's Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks said in a memo.

The new protocol, which goes into effect Monday, will continue indefinitely. It follows Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's recent directives about limiting congregations of groups in public and private locations, and advice from an epidemiologist, according to a spokesman for Chief Judge Janet DiFiore.

All future bench trials — in which a judge decides the verdict — and court hearings will be virtual unless otherwise authorized. But in-person court conferences will continue with social distancing standards kept in place, court officials said.

The disruption to the court system's gradual reintroduction of jury duty amid the COVID-19 pandemic comes about two months after Suffolk County began seating jurors for civil and criminal cases under a pilot program.

Nassau County started seating juries for civil cases in October. The first Nassau jury to hear a criminal case started its service this week following selection in Mineola on Tuesday.

Jury service initially came to a halt in March when the court system quickly transitioned to mostly virtual operations and many courthouses closed amid concerns about coronavirus spread.

Now those entering courthouses must wear face masks, undergo temperature checks and answer questions related to COVID-19 exposure. The installation of hand sanitizer stations and social distancing floor markers are among the other modifications that court administrators put in place after the facilities reopened.

A statement from DiFiore's office about jury service suspensions said Friday that "as conditions change, we of course will revisit the situation."

Nassau County Bar Association president Dorian R. Glover said it’s a good idea to pause jury service. He said Nassau Administrative Judge Norman St. George previously had warned "there may be modifications in case of a spike" in infections.

"The bar is in full support, based upon the health concerns," Glover said of his organization.

He added that the court system is "easily adaptable" to change now and that "the promise of a vaccine" in the days ahead is encouraging.

Karen Johnston, who leads the Criminal Courts Bar Association of Nassau County, said Friday that suspending jury duty is the right decision "if we can avoid or limit foot traffic in the courthouse."

She added: "Everyone wants to see a defendant have their day in court, especially people that are incarcerated. But when the numbers are going up and you’re going to have jurors who don’t want to come in, understandably, I think it’s best to put this over until at least January."

Nassau district attorney's office spokeswoman Miriam Sholder said in a statement Friday that the health and safety of the public, prosecutors and their courthouse colleagues "is paramount."

She added that prosecutors would do their jobs without interruption, by working both in person and virtually.

"Every Nassau resident should rest assured that our work to keep Nassau County the safest in America continues — as it did before the resumption of juries — with arraignments, pleas, hearings and the issuance of orders of protection," Sholder said.

Attorney Greg Madey, who represents the first criminal defendant to have a Nassau jury trial since March, confirmed Friday that his jailed client's trial is set to continue Monday. The felony trial began Tuesday with jury selection.

"I don’t have any objection to the trial continuing. I have to do what’s best for my client," the Mineola defense lawyer said.

With John Valenti

State & Region