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COVID precautions to be followed as jury trials resume in Louisiana

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BATON ROUGE - With an increasing number of Louisiana's citizens becoming fully vaccinated against COVID-19, certain aspects of daily life that had been temporarily shuttered by the pandemic have resumed.

One such activity is that of serving as a juror for jury trials, a civic duty that was halted for nearly 13 months due to the novel coronavirus health crisis. 

As jury trials resume, COVID-related health precautions that were seen in courtrooms throughout the pandemic will continue.

So, in Baton Rouge courtrooms, masks will still be worn, Plexiglas dividers will remain in place, and social distancing measures will continue to be followed.  

When it comes to masks, however, an exception will be made to those testifying on the stand. 

Judges and jurors will need to observe the facial expressions of those providing testimony, so as to come to conclusions about the depth of their feelings and sincerity as they speak.

As masks would limit the judge and jurors' ability to make these kinds of observations, those who are on the stand will be allowed to remove their masks and wear face shields instead.

In addition to the precautions listed above, officials will summon smaller groups of jurors in staggered shifts and have jurors complete a COVID-related questionnaire in addition to submitting to temperature checks. 

The pandemic-induced pause in jury trials resulted in quite a backlog of cases, and District Attorney Hillar Moore spoke to WBRZ about the way officials will determine which cases to proceed with first.

Moore said, "We have to look at both the age of cases, what's the status of witnesses, or their age, or their health. Are people leaving town? How many times has it been set before? Is the defendant in jail or out of jail? All of those things go into determining which cases will be tried first." 

While serving as a juror may not be one of the pre-pandemic activities that most citizens eagerly look forward to engaging in, officials are encouraging residents to take the civic duty seriously.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John L. Weimer of New Orleans addressed the matter by writing an article for The Advocate which stated, "Our state courts need help. As judges return to conducting jury trials, my colleagues and I on the Supreme Court are asking citizens of Louisiana to answer the call to serve as jurors.

Our system of having matters judged by juries of our peers is one of the more enduring institutions of our democracy, and fulfilling one’s duty as jurors has never been more important.

Jurors are called upon to resolve differences between persons in our communities as well as to determine criminal responsibility. Their collective wisdom is needed to resolve factual disputes and apply laws passed by our representatives, thus ensuring that all values are considered and all voices are heard.

There are few opportunities in public service that compare to the instant impact the decisions of jurors have on the parties before them and on the places they live.

This critical element of our legal system has been severely impacted over the past year. Cases are backlogged due to the pandemic. While we recognize the risks of the virus have not been eliminated, we are hopeful the worst is behind us. Juror safety remains of primary importance. We have consulted with medical professionals who have established protocols for safely resuming jury trials.

Jurors can be confident that safety precautions are being taken to ensure their health and safety when they serve.

Every citizen is required to respond when summoned to serve as a juror. However, judges conducting trials will be sensitive to the particular needs of each person, especially those identified by medical experts as most at risk from the virus. Individual medical circumstances will be considered, and no one will be compelled to serve who is not willing and fit to do so.

These extraordinary times make citizen participation in the jury process even more important. In answering the call to serve, jurors will be exercising their civic responsibility, bringing honor to themselves and to the judicial system that is integral to our system of government and way of life."

The Louisiana Supreme Court's year-long moratorium on jury trials ends Thursday, April 1.

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