Wayne, Oakland County courts eye resuming jury trials this summer

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News
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If all goes well, jury trials in circuit courts in Wayne and Oakland counties will resume this summer, officials said Wednesday.

Chief Judge Timothy Kenny of Wayne County Circuit Court said July 19 is the target date for the court to start holding the trials again as new COVID-19 cases decline in Metro Detroit and across the state. In Oakland County, court administrator Kevin Oeffner said officials have no firm timetable but hope to resume jury trials as soon as next month.

Frank Murphy Hall of Justice in downtown Detroit

Kenny said the pandemic's greatest impact on court operations has been the "start-stop cycle" of jury trials since the coronavirus was first discovered in Michigan in March 2020.

Kenny and the court's other judges tried several times to hold jury trials in the past year but each time the effort was dashed due to an increase in COVID-19 cases.

Despite devising a safety plan that included health screening and installing plex-shield barriers in courtrooms, court officials have halted in-person matters such as jury trials, bench trials and evidentiary hearings.

Kenny said before the pandemic, Wayne County Circuit Court averaged 400 jury trials a year. Fewer than a dozen have been held in the past 14 months.

In Oakland County, "We don't have a firm date yet as to when jury trials will resume, but we hope to begin the week of June 21 if the COVID numbers continue to decline and the requisite State Court Administrative Office jury trial thresholds are achieved," Oeffner said. "We review the COVID numbers daily and consult regularly with SCAO and the Health Department, and we plan to send notices to jurors as soon as there is consensus that it is safe to resume jury trials."

Macomb County Circuit Court administrator Julie Bovenschen said Wednesday that no timetable has been set to resume trials.

"We are currently still unable to conduct jury trials," she said, adding that doing so depends on meeting guidelines set by the State Court Administrator's Office, including reduced rates of COVID-19 infection. "We will be ready to begin jury trials when the numbers reach the requirements."

Bovenschen said prior to the pandemic, the court averaged 150 jury trials a year and has only been able to hold four such trials since March 2020. 

"Similar to other courts across the state, we have installed plexiglass barriers in the courtrooms, require health screening and temperature check prior to entry, limit capacity in the courtrooms to allow for 6-foot social distancing, and require face coverings," she said.

Courthouses in Michigan are still open and  have operated with limited public access. Most proceedings have been conducted online through Zoom and YouTube platforms.

Local health experts, judicial partners and the State Court Administrative Office are consulted regarding the issue of when jury trials and court operations can return to normal, according to court officials.

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