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caption: Sgt. Scott Rankin of the Kent Police Department wears a clear face mask to testify in King County Superior Court. 
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Sgt. Scott Rankin of the Kent Police Department wears a clear face mask to testify in King County Superior Court.
Credit: KUOW/Amy Radil

Jury trials resume in King County and expand to Bellevue

Clear face masks, plexiglass shields, and a pop-up courthouse: These are just some of the changes jurors see as they are once again summoned to consider civil and criminal cases in the King County Superior Court.

The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right for people accused of crimes to confront their accusers in court. But jury trials were suspended in March when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

Now, jury trials have resumed at the King County Courthouse in Seattle, the Regional Justice Center in Kent, and at Bellevue’s Meydenbauer Center. And they have a significant backlog to address.

During a recent criminal trial in Seattle, the witness on the stand — a police officer — wore a clear plastic face mask as he described arresting the defendant for unlawful possession of a firearm and of methamphetamine with intent to deliver. The clear masks are meant to help jurors assess the credibility of the witnesses who testify.

There’s no more jury box. Fourteen jurors (12 jurors plus two alternates) filed in silently and took their seats in office chairs spaced around the courtroom. They came despite hazardous air outside from recent wildfire smoke, as well as public health concerns about the spread of the virus indoors. The wooden benches that filled the courtrooms before have been removed and are now lining the hallways.

And the judge’s bench now has a plexiglass shield in front of it. The changes are meant to protect the health and safety of all court participants. Superior Court Judge Mary Roberts said she’s grateful to see jurors showing up.

“It has been really heartening to see how jurors have responded and been willing to do their civic duty during this time that is really difficult for all of us,” she said.

But the transition has not been seamless. The court has to summon many more potential jurors than in the past. For this trial, Roberts said they called 150 people. Sixty asked to be excused for health reasons or other problems.

“Significantly, some people are not living here right now,” she said. “They may be a King County resident who was properly summoned, but they’re staying at their parents’ home in another state during Covid.”

Hundreds of prospective jurors used to report to a large room in the courthouse each day. Now jury selection happens remotely by video. Jurors don’t have to come to court until they get assigned to a case.

Roberts said that this change has been well-received. “Jurors loved it as well because they don’t want to come to downtown Seattle until they’re actually required to,” she said.

The case that Judge Roberts heard on this day ended in a mistrial when jurors reported that they had reached an impasse. But after months of lockdown, there are many more cases waiting to proceed in this court and elsewhere.

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said, “We have a record backlog of cases approaching 6,000 felonies to get through the system and we’ve done six jury trials since March.”

The backlog includes 175 murder cases awaiting trial, and likely more to come. By August, Satterberg said his office had filed more murder charges this year than they had in all of 2019. And he said funding cuts could strain the system further.

“The concern is also the budget hit that all local governments are taking because of the Covid lockdown and cases are at record levels,” he said. “So it’s a challenging time.”

Restarting trials also meant finding more space to hold them. Each criminal trial currently takes up two courtrooms: One for the trial and one for jurors when they’re deliberating. (The traditional jury rooms near each courtroom are too small to permit social distancing.)

caption: King County Superior Court Judge Johanna Bender is presiding over civil cases at Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue.
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King County Superior Court Judge Johanna Bender is presiding over civil cases at Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue.
Credit: KUOW/Amy Radil

As a result, King County has created what it calls a “pop-up” courthouse for civil trials at Meydenbauer Center, the convention center in Bellevue, through at least the end of 2020. The center requires security screening similar to the courthouses.

Meydenbauer’s conference rooms are now courtrooms. Superior Court Judge Johanna Bender said, “They’ve done a lot of reimagining about how spaces can be used, a lot of thought about social distancing and sanitization, and it’s actually going quite smoothly.”

In her courtroom, the jury is hearing a personal injury lawsuit filed by a woman who fell at a Barnes and Noble bookstore and is suing the company.

In these civil cases, witnesses can appear remotely, on large screens overhead. Technical issues require the usual amount of troubleshooting. In one instance, the jurors take their seats only to be sent back out of the courtroom while staff try to amplify the volume to play a video deposition. But Bender said she’s trying to keep these small glitches to a minimum.

“I’ve always been pretty serious about case management, about bringing my attorneys into court in person or by telephone in advance of trial to really troubleshoot all of the issues that could come up at trial. And during Covid-era trials, I’m sort of doubling down on that strategy,” she said.

Bender said judges don’t have private chambers at the center. But she and her staff make use of her courtroom to do their work between sessions.

“I will say everyone is treating each other with a pretty significant amount of grace and working through it together,” Bender said.

The personal injury case settles the next day. Making one less in the county backlog.