Amidst a surge in COVID-19 cases in South Florida, a Miami court held Florida’s first jury trial since the beginning of the pandemic. Before allowing jurors to enter the courtroom, court officials consulted with health experts from the University of Florida Epidemiology Department, University of Miami Health System, and University of Miami Medical School. The health experts all volunteered their time.
Jury selection was conducted remotely with prospective jurors participating over the internet from their homes. 700 jurors responded to the jury summons and 120 were selected to participate in Zoom interviews. Of the 120 jurors interviewed, only 12 to 14 asked to be excused for COVID-related reasons. Ultimately, a jury of six jurors was selected and asked to come to the courthouse to attend the trial.
Once at the courthouse, jurors had their temperatures checked and were asked to complete a health questionnaire. They were escorted and rode the elevator to the courtroom in pairs. In the courtroom, they were socially distanced and seated in rows that extended outside of the normal jury box. Jurors were provided masks and face shields. Jurors were instructed that gloves were optional but masks were not. Face shields were required whenever jurors were moving throughout the courthouse.
Witnesses testified surrounded by plexiglass. The presiding judge, 11th Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko, wore a mask and a face shield. The attorneys wore masks.
The trial was conducted as part of a pilot program authorized by Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady. The trial was an insurance dispute arising out of damage to a home as a result of Hurricane Irma. The parties to dispute volunteered to participate in the trial and the result was not binding on the parties.
11th Circuit Chief Judge Bertila Soto thanked the jurors for their participation and the hailed the trial as an important moment for Florida’s judicial system. “People see the right to a jury trial as essential work,” Judge Soto said. “It’s something that we need to go forward on, provide – and it’s a big provided – that we take the necessary steps to keep everyone safe.”
However, Judge Bailey noted that a significant dedication of time, effort, and resources was required to hold the trial. “It makes the idea of scaling up a significant number of jury trials extremely challenging,” Judge Bailey said.