Maine gets ready to resume jury trials

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Maine is set to resume jury trials in criminal cases this month, with jurors sitting in space usually occupied by the public and members of the public viewing by video in a different room.

Paula Hannaford-Agor, director of the Center for Jury Studies with the National Council for State Courts, told the Portland Press Herald she is not aware of COVID-19 outbreaks tied to jury trials in the few states where they have resumed.

Still, jury selection may prove challenging.

“If you want to go for dinner at an indoor restaurant or take your motorcycle to Sturgis or get your hair cut, that’s your personal choice,” Hannaford-Agor told the newspaper. “But jury service is compulsory. … (The courts) are especially concerned about protecting public health and safety, advertising and doing a lot of public education about the steps that they’re putting in place so people feel comfortable reporting for jury service.”

Maine has two trials scheduled; one is a murder case in Penobscot County; the other is for operating under the influence in Kennebec County.

Court officials have characterized these proceedings as pilot cases, in which judges, attorneys, clerks and advocates will be observing what happens and working to make any necessary adjustments.

For the murder trial, more than 500 summons were sent out; the typical number is roughly 300. In addition to routine questions about impartiality, jurors also were asked to answer questions about pandemic-related hardships, particularly whether they have health conditions that put them at higher risk for contracting the coronavirus.

The attorneys for the murder defendant also filed a motion regarding the mask requirement, arguing it could be prejudicial.

But Assistant Attorney General Leane Zainea objected and said the defendant would need to wear a mask or wait to be tried after face coverings were no longer required.

“Although the defendant does have constitutional rights, those constitutional rights have to be balanced against the health and safety of all individuals involved this process,” Zainea said, according to the Press Herald.

A judge in the case ruled that the mask requirement would stand.

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