Last week, Wells Ashby, presiding judge of the Deschutes County Circuit Court, toured the Deschutes County Fair & Expo Center in Redmond alongside county officials to see if the site could host socially distanced jury trials.
Twelve-person jury trials, once common at the Deschutes County Courthouse, haven’t been held locally since the COVID-19 outbreak began. That’s despite Oregon being one of the only states in the country to hold jury trials at all, thanks to the state’s strong speedy trial laws.
But holding jury trials at the fairgrounds won’t be easy, with ample considerations needed for victims, the accused, jurors and staff.
“It’s not as simple as just rolling down 97 with some gear in the trunk,” Ashby said.
Several weeks into the shutdown, Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters ordered courthouses to reopen while minimizing health risks as much as possible. Last month, Ashby signed a pandemic-related operation plan intended to flesh out the chief justice’s order for the next 12 to 20 months. The plan imposes conditions like a mask requirement in the courthouse and protocols for sanitizing lobby furniture and screening employees.
Jury trials, especially those for more serious felonies, require many people to be in the same room at the same time. So far in Deschutes County, only 6-person misdemeanor jury trials and bench trials (where a judge determines if a defendant is guilty) have been held, and those trials have required two courtrooms.
In Crook County, only bench trials have been held since the pandemic hit.
“We are simply unable to achieve proper social distancing and ensure safety of jurors in a courthouse that was built over 100 years ago,” said Crook County District Attorney Wade Whiting.
Crook County officials last week began exploring options for off-site trials with a small committee.
“Each alternative venue we have vetted poses unique challenges for security and court administration,” Whiting said.
The fairgrounds location has a number of factors that make it the top choice to host jury trials, Ashby said.
It’s owned by the county, which already also oversees the circuit court. Located right off U.S. Highway 97, it’s easy to get to and is widely known to county residents. It offers ample parking and is large enough that the trials wouldn’t significantly disrupt other functions of the fairgrounds.
So far in Deschutes County, court officials have developed lists of what will be needed at the fairgrounds. On the to-do list is to look at the costs of renting tents and other furnishings like chairs, tables, maybe a riser to put a bench up on.
Heating, air conditioning and restrooms will be needed to keep people comfortable, because jurors need to be focused only on listening to the evidence, Ashby said. Secure and private rooms are needed for lawyers to meet with clients and jurors and judges to deliberate. Boxes and boxes of computer and recording equipment must be relocated and tied in with the county IT system and the fairgrounds PA system. Security is another primary concern.
“Our number one priority is making the courthouse as safe as humanly possible,” Ashby said. “Competing with that are statutory timelines, which require us to try cases, the most pressing of which are in-custody criminal defendants.”
The county is considering two spaces at the fairgrounds, according to court administrator Jeff Hall. The North Sister Conference building seems like the best option, but is also the most used so it may present availability challenges.
The other building is the High Desert Activity Center.
“(It’s) just a big open building. We’d have to add some tented spaces around it to create an entry/foyer for witness and security screening if needed and for jury deliberations.
Waiting long periods of time before trial can have negative outcomes for victims as well as defendants, making both more likely to accept the terms of a plea deal.
Bend defense attorney Shawn Kollie said there are several issues with the fairgrounds plan. Holding a trial outside the courthouse could send jurors a message of how “important” or “necessary” the case is, he said.
“That is both good and bad,” Kollie said. “Good that they could take the case seriously. Bad that they know the case is so serious ‘it must go on.’”
Jurors already uneasy about hearing a serious case could have that feeling compounded by COVID-related concerns, Kollie said.
“Completing a trial at the fairgrounds may provide some benefits, but any trial during this time takes away from the historical decorum and creates many unnecessary risks to our community,” Kollie said.
Ashby said the court is “looking in every corner and under every rock” for ways to keep the court calendar moving. One other way has been utilizing “Plan B” judges in more cases. In Oregon, these judges opt for early retirement with the condition they continue to hear cases. Since quarantine began, retired Judge A. Michael Adler has heard numerous criminal cases from his home office, which has greatly helped relieve stress on the docket, Ashby said.