CLEVELAND, Ohio – A Cleveland City Court judge had to drop the court’s first jury trial since the start of the coronavirus pandemic on Thursday because there weren’t enough people to show up for office de jure.
Only 12 of the 75 people called to court for jury duty made it to the Justice Center on Thursday morning, leaving the court with too few potential jurors to sit on a jury, Judge Suzan Sweeney said.
“That’s 16 percent of people doing their civic duty,” Sweeney said in a telephone interview.
Sweeney has reset the trial, in which a veteran is accused of assaulting his neighbor, for July 29.
The ruling adds yet another wrinkle as court officials seek to resume a backlog of jury trials that have been postponed since the start of the pandemic that has killed nearly 20,000 Ohio residents.
The 12 judges in Cleveland City Court typically conduct 12 or 13 jury trials per year, court spokesman Ed “Flash” Ferenc said. The vast majority of cases are resolved through plea agreements or dismissals.
The court, along with the Cuyahoga County Joint Plea Court which shares the same tower of the Justice Center, suspended all jury trials from March 2020 when health officials confirmed the first cases of the virus in Cuyahoga County. The Common Pleas Court, which typically holds hundreds of jury trials a year, resumed the practice temporarily in October, only to have to stop them again amid a surge in cases in November.
The municipal court did not seek to resume the trials until Thursday.
Sweeney was to preside over the 9 a.m. trial with jury selection. The court implemented a series of security measures before resuming trials, including equipping courtrooms with plexiglass barriers, limiting the number of trials underway at the same time, blocking seats to limit the number of people allowed in each courtroom and requiring visitors to wear masks and practice social distancing. The trial has been moved to Judge Joseph Zone’s courtroom, one of the courtroom’s largest courtrooms, to accommodate more people than could fit in Sweeney’s room, he said. she declared.
The court needs at least 17 potential jurors to sit on a jury, Sweeney said. Municipal trials have eight jurors and a deputy, and the prosecution and defense each have the option of dismissing four potential jurors during jury selection. The court also declares potential jurors ineligible for various reasons, such as if they know someone involved in the case or if they have a bias that could affect their verdict.
Only 12 people showed up on time, Sweeney waited 10 a.m. before asking the deputy city attorney and defense attorney if they would be willing to waive their right to remove jurors. Neither of them agreed and Sweeney decided to postpone the trial, she said.
Sweeney must have speculated as to why so few people showed up. She said fear of the coronavirus combined with an overall negative perception of the cleanliness of the justice center may have factored in the poor performance. She also said people may have issues with childcare or not have been able to quit their jobs. She also wondered if some people had plans for Memorial Day weekend starting Friday and didn’t want to risk having to cancel.
The dozen jurors who came forward included a mix of people from different backgrounds, Sweeney said. They were evenly split between males and females, eight were black and four were white and they were a mix of younger, middle-aged and older residents, Sweeney said.
She said some of them were a little nervous about coming into the building.
“Mentally, I think some people are still anxious, still worried and still very worried,” she said.
Sweeney said she remains flexible to alleviate those concerns. She said she would let jurors who did not feel comfortable sitting in the jurors’ gallery sit at the back of the courtroom to watch the proceedings and that she would continue to demand that people wear masks.
“Any apprehension that we try to deal with, and we’ll come to terms with it,” Sweeney said.
The court’s next trial is scheduled for June 3 in Judge Lauren Moore’s courtroom.