It’s a team effort to conduct trials in Big Horn County

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By JESSICA ROBINSON

COVID-19 changed how day-to-day business is conducted. This includes the judicial system, where many court cases are still moving forward despite a global pandemic. 

With many court hearings moving to being conducted online, jury trials still need to be conducted in person. The Wyoming Supreme Court ordered that no jury trials be conducted unless a jury trial operating plan be adopted by judges and submitted to the county health officer without objection. The Wyoming Supreme Court has laid out recommendations on how jury trials be conducted. 

In Big Horn County, Judge Bobbi Overfield put an operating plan in place for jury trials that was approved by Big Horn County Public Health. 

“It’s a team effort of the entire court,” said Big Horn County District Court Clerk Serena Lipp. 

Lipp and Circuit Court Clerk Diane Nuttall will work together if a jury trial is needed in Big Horn County.

Nuttall said the way jury trials will operate in circuit court are the same as district court.

It all starts with juror summonses and the addition of an optional juror questionnaire that asks if a potential juror has experienced flu-like symptoms, has pre-existing conditions and if they had been exposed to COVID-19 recently. 

Also in the summonses is a letter to the potential jurors laying out the measures being taken to ensure their safety while they do their civic duty. These measures include health screenings for potential jurors before entering the court room, social distancing before entering and within the courtroom, providing personal protective equipment (masks, gloves and hand sanitizer), and cleaning the courtroom twice a day. Jurors are also asked to leave personal water containers at home. The court provides water to jurors. 

Lipp sent out the optional questionnaire recently when the court thought they were having a potential August jury trial. She said the potential jurors did respond to the optional questionnaire.

With the potential trial, more measures were laid out to ensure social distancing was met. This required the entire courthouse to work together. 

When it comes to voir dire, Lipp decided to have jurors come in flights of 18. There were three planned flights. The first flight was to arrive at 8:30 a.m. with voir dire starting at 9 a.m. for the first group. Those jurors would have been in the district courtroom. The next flight would have arrived at a later time. Lipp said the circuit court room would have housed a flight of jurors. Lipp added that once they got through the flights, they hoped to have a jury picked by 3 p.m. 

It’s not just the jury that needs to be taken care of, but also witnesses. Witnesses are subpoenaed and expected to arrive at 9 a.m. Lipp said they planned to use the basement of Big Horn County Land Planning to place witnesses.

Lipp mentioned that the CARES conference room would have turned into the jury room. With its size, Lipp said there would be space for the jurors to spread out.

In return, CARES victim advocates and the victims would have used the basement circuit court jury room. 

During trial, Lipp mentioned the jury would have sit in the gallery instead of the normal jury booth in order to maintain social distance. 

Lipp said they would have limited the number of people from the public that they allowed to view the trial. She had to take into account the number of individuals in the courtroom, which includes the judge, court reporter, counsel, defendant, jury members and law enforcement.

With all the precautions in place, they did not get to see how it worked due to the trial settling. In those cases, Lipp said they have a way of communicating with jurors through the District Court Jury Line. These jurors call in the line to make sure the trial is on schedule or if it has been settled. 

Lipp said this will change in the future. They will go to an online format called Clear View Jury where the jury can check in online and the district court can contact potential jurors through a text message. Lipp said since they had a low number of trials, they will be the last court to receive the new program. 

Even though the potential trial did not happen, Lipp said they now have a plan for any upcoming trials. Other courts in the state have conducted trials recently with similar plans, which Lipp said means they can go forward with trials.

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