A lawyer enters a theater and sees a judge on a stage, masked jury and a witness enclosed in Plexiglas.

It sounds like the prelude to a joke, but it turns out it happened during a successful jury trial when the Georgia in-person trial resumed.

“It went surprisingly smoothly,” said Lawton E. Stephens, Athens-Clarke District Superior Court judge. “This is the first jury process we’ve had in a year.”

On March 22nd, Stephens initiated the weeklong personal jury trial for the Western Judicial Circuit in Oconee County, one of the first in the state since Suspension of jury trials by the Supreme Court of Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton on March 14, 2020.

The return to jury trials looked and felt different.

For starters, Stephens was now sitting higher than ever.

“We were concerned that the court reporter could hear everything that was being said because I was on the stage,” he said.

Both prosecutors and defense joined Stephens on stage. The survey came as part of increased social distancing, where jury selection was moved to the Oconee County Civic Center’s theater, while jury trials were held in the District Court’s grand courtroom 3 miles away.


The two-site setup presented some unexpected benefits as well as some challenges.

Judge Lawton Stephens, Athens-Clarke District Court. (Courtesy photo)

Benefits included access to the civic center’s audio and visual staff and ample space to meet social distancing requirements.

“The prosecution was on the stage with the prospective jurors sitting in the theater seats, but we had a really good acoustics system,” said Stephens. “We had people responsible for all of this in the community center who made sure that everyone could hear. Then the bailiffs had microphones on the ends of the large poles and if we didn’t hear someone they would hold it close to them so that they were a meter away from them but still heard everything they said. “

Challenges, however, included straining the sheriff’s office resources to maintain safety in the larger, more open venue.

“Security was a big issue. We must have hired a dozen proxies to check the jury and make sure the entrances and exits are secure, ”he said. “It just takes significantly more staff to ensure safety when getting in and out.”

Although the manpower required to secure the venue proved to be more demanding than Stephens expected, other anticipated issues such as jury turnout and turnout were to his surprise COVID related Apology requests turned out to be non-factors.

“We haven’t had a single person apologize for having concerns about COVID. Not a single person, ”he said. “We had a person who apologized for being a caregiver for someone who was in quarantine. And they were excused. “

Stephens said another person who identified with an illness that prevented them from wearing a mask was physically distanced from the other jurors during the screening process but ultimately not selected to serve.

From COVID-19 screenings at all entry points to temperature controls, Stephens said, security protocols kept jurors, witnesses and people at the public gallery socially distant.

“We put seven jurors in the jury box and then put the remaining five jurors in the two deputies in the first four rows of the gallery, which we cordoned off so that no one sits directly behind the jury,” said Stephens. “We could see spectators and family members of the participants on the left. And as soon as we have reached the maximum capacity and people are at least 2 meters apart in the rows, we have set up a video lab that streams at two different locations in the courthouse. “


Even though fought over some of the lawyers masked the selection of the jury. However, no witness statements.

“Everyone in the courtroom had to wear a mask,” said Stephens. “We had plexiglass on three sides of the stand and allowed witnesses to remove their masks while they were behind the plexiglass. We would wipe the microphones in the area in front of the witnesses after each witness testified. “

With the exception of testimony, Stephens insisted that not only are masks worn by everyone else at all times, but that they are worn correctly.

“Our goal is to ensure the safety of every single person here,” he said. “You have to wear a mask. You have to keep it pulled up over your nose. You have to be socially distant. “

Stephens cited no mask compliance issues and largely attributed the ease of maintaining social distancing to the openness of the civic center. Although he preferred to conduct the trial at the civic center as well rather than returning to the courthouse, he said the proximity to Oconee County High School made matters difficult given the increased traffic and parking.

“There are 1,400 students right next to it and parking lots and everything else that goes with it,” he says. “So it was much better to come back and try the courthouse.”

During the first week of the Oconee County’s criminal jury trials, a second jury will be presented on Monday in Clarke County’s Western Judicial Circuit. Both the selection of the jury and the tests take place in the Classic Center in Athens.

Continue reading:

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