New Hampshire Makes Plans to Resume Jury Trials
State expects to hold pilot jury trial in August
CONCORD, NH – The New Hampshire Superior Court is working to resume jury trials that were postponed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. A committee of two judges, two clerks, and administrative staff has met weekly since March to carefully craft guidelines that will balance individuals' right to a trial and a jury of their peers with efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. Preparing the guidelines involved input from defense and prosecuting attorneys as well as Dr. Jonathan Ballard, Chief Medical Officer for the NH Department of Health and Human Services. Now complete, the guidelines work to ensure jurors, witnesses, attorneys, judges and court staff follow strict precautions and CDC requirements to combat the spread of COVID-19.
The New Hampshire Judicial Branch remained open during the declared Emergency Order that ran from March 13 until June 15 but saw significant restrictions in foot traffic in public courthouses, and the Superior Court put on hold nearly 1,000 jury trials. With new guidelines from the CDC and low infection rates in northern counties, the court has begun making plans to gradually resume jury trials, both grand and petit, starting in Cheshire County.
“We weighed the need for a speedy trial with the concern for COVID-19 cautions and decided, with enough guidance on best practices from other states and with input from Chief Medical Officer Ballard, that a gradual resumption process is feasible in a low-infection county,” said Chief Justice of the Superior Court Tina Nadeau. “Currently we are encouraging telephonic and video hearings wherever possible, and in urgent circumstances we allow in-person hearings. However, with a thorough plan for sanitation and careful enforcement of mask wearing, social distancing and symptom screening, we think we have the necessary template for beginning in-person jury trials. The committee, with the input from defense attorneys and prosecutors, determined that virtual criminal jury trials are not feasible at this time because they raise a host of constitutional concerns.”
Nadeau noted that the committee has created a thoughtful and detailed set of instructions for potential jurors, all the way from the summons letter, to the selection process, to physical distancing in the courtroom, to sanitary and electronic means that will help keep the process moving forward both carefully and smoothly. The first walk through for a pilot jury will be conducted in late July with the first pilot trial planned for mid-August.
“Jury trials are the cornerstone of our democracy and provide the essential function of ensuring speedy and fair resolution of criminal charges,” said Judge Nadeau. “Delaying them has been a difficult but necessary response to the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Resuming them will require us to think differently about the process and to ensure restrictions are in place to keep all participants safe, while at the same time protecting defendants’ due process rights.
These procedures must be ones we can implement and adopt until COVID-19 is no longer a threat to public health.”