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Masks, shields and a judge behind plexiglass: How we’ll do jury duty in Tampa Bay

Jury duty is coming back next month in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties. The coronavirus will make things very different.

Something citizens haven’t seen in more than six months could land in their mailboxes soon: That summons to report to your local courthouse to do your civic duty.

Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties plan to begin jury trials in October as part of a measured move toward normal — so long as the counties continue to meet health-related benchmarks. In Hillsborough, summonses to pick a grand jury Oct. 5 have been mailed out, with regular criminal trials starting Oct. 19. Pinellas will start sending its invitations Monday to come to the courthouse for trials beginning Oct. 27.

So what’s jury duty going to look like in a pandemic?

“If anyone has ever served before, it’s going to be a completely different animal,” said Hillsborough Circuit Judge Samantha Ward. “I think we’re at a level where we’ve never been before as it relates to safety of jurors.”

Across Tampa Bay, no longer will packs of prospective jurors be sardined into crowded auditoriums, shoulder-to-shoulder in jury boxes or sent to deliberate in small rooms. Plans call for using the most cavernous courtrooms and other large courthouse facilities.

Jurors will wear masks or those futuristic-looking clear face shields. Courtrooms will be marked with big red X’s and green checks or signs indicating where you can and cannot sit or stand to keep everyone apart. Seating for spectators is expected to be limited, and people will ride elevators in groups of two or four, depending on the elevator size, which could mean long waits to get upstairs.

And in Pinellas, your presiding judge will likely be encased in plexiglass.

Already, courtroom masks are a hot topic of discussion.

“Every trial lawyer I know wants to look at the jury and see how the jury is reacting to testimony and evidence,” said defense lawyer John Fitzgibbons. “If you have a mask, that’s going to make that impossible.”

Also, how do jurors evaluate the credibility of witnesses, a critical element of any trial, with those witness faces shrouded from the cheekbones down?

Hillsborough officials are considering using clear face shields or clear masks. Stephen Thompson, spokesman for the Sixth Judicial Circuit that includes Pinellas and Pasco counties, said witnesses will likely wear clear face shields while jurors will likely wear regular masks.

But the biggest question about a return to trials is this: If summoned, will they show?

Pre-pandemic, about 15 percent did not show up for jury duty in Pinellas, 14 percent in Pasco and 20 percent in Hillsborough. (That does not include the large number of people who ask to get excused ahead of time for reasons such as being 70 or older.) Now, people will likely have health concerns about coming to the courthouse.

Bob Dillinger, the public defender for Pinellas and Pasco, cited a court case in Houston for which a thousand summonses were sent out.

“Fifty live people showed up," he said, and another 30 said they would participate if they could do it on Zoom.

“I’m worried about whether we’re actually going to be able to get a reasonable amount of jurors,” said Hillsborough Public Defender Julie Holt.

The Florida Supreme Court has specified reasons people can be excused from jury duty, including being on the Centers for Disease Control list of those at higher risk for severe illness due to COVID-19 infection, or taking care of a child or relative whose regular care provider is closed or not available for coronavirus-related reasons.

Potential jurors can have jury service postponed for up to six months if they recently went back to work or suffered financial or personal loss due to COVID-19. They also can be excused if they submit an affidavit saying they have symptoms, such as a fever or cough not related to a known medical condition.

Some courthouse regulars sound eager to get the wheels of justice moving again.

“I don’t want to sound corny here, but the right to a jury trial is really one of the cornerstones of our system of justice.” said Hillsborough Chief Judge Ron Ficarrotta.

It’s also unprecedented and uncharted territory.

“I used to believe like that Farmers Insurance guy, ‘I know I thing or two because I’ve seen a thing or two,’” said Bernie McCabe, longtime state attorney for Pinellas and Pasco. “But I’ve never seen anything like this.”

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