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New York courts suspend new juries statewide

November 13, 2020 David Brand
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The New York Office of Court Administration has suspended all new jury trials and grand juries in the state to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks wrote in a memo to judges Friday.

The decision comes less than two weeks after jury selection and jury trials resumed in New York City for the first time since March. Brooklyn’s first criminal jury trial since March began Tuesday, Oct. 20 with special accommodations to promote social distancing among juries and other parties.

At the time, special measures in Brooklyn Supreme Court included mandatory masks, daily temperature checks, upgraded air filtration and plexiglass shielding.

That trial and other ongoing criminal and civil jury trials across the state will continue to their conclusion, Marks said.

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OCA spokesperson Lucian Chalfen said the suspension was informed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s latest executive orders restricting gatherings as COVID rates rise once again in New York.

“In light of advice from our epidemiologist and Governor Cuomo’s most recent directives concerning limiting congregation of groups of people in public and private locations, we have made a determination that starting next week, no new prospective trial jurors, both criminal and civil, will be summoned for jury service, for now,” Chalfen said.

Marks sent the memo Friday afternoon to county administrative judges. Sitting grand juries will continue to hear cases but new grand juries will not be empaneled, he said.

Pending bench trials will continue to their conclusion, but new bench trials and hearings will be conducted virtually, he added.

Some jurisdictions have already moved to suspend jury trials as a result of the COVID crisis.

A criminal jury trial in the Bronx was postponed after four people in the courthouse tested positive for COVID-19 last week. Nassau County courts suspended all new grand juries and trial juries Friday morning.

In-person court conferences will continue in Brooklyn and elsewhere in New York City, Marks said.

Queens Defenders Executive Director Lori Zeno, an outspoken critic of in-person court appearances, said she was relieved to learn that new jury trials will be postponed.

“Finally,” Zeno said when told of OCA’s latest decision. She and other defense attorneys have questioned the safety of courthouses, where several staffers and lawyers have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent weeks.

On Monday, a prosecutor from the Queens DA’s office tested positive for COVID. Various court employees, at least two judges and two attorneys with Queens Defenders were ordered to quarantine because they may have been exposed to the illness, according to court staff. Defense attorneys have also highlighted the potential dangers to defendants who come from city jails where COVID has surged and sit in holding areas with Department of Correction staff who may not be wearing masks.

Zeno said OCA should make other hearings and conferences remote to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“It’s a good start, but I would prefer they do the same with in-court appearances on low-level cases that do not need to go to court,” she said.

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