Coronavirus worries delay most jury proceedings in Florida courts

Florida’s Chief Justice ordered most face-to-face proceedings suspended for two weeks. Locally, there was another delay for the closely-watched trial of former Port Richey Mayor Dale Massad.
Jury trials in Pinellas and Pasco counties have been postponed indefinitely due to coronavirus, a courts spokesman said. That may affect the closely watched trial of former Port Richey Mayor Dale Massad, scheduled to start Monday.
Jury trials in Pinellas and Pasco counties have been postponed indefinitely due to coronavirus, a courts spokesman said. That may affect the closely watched trial of former Port Richey Mayor Dale Massad, scheduled to start Monday.
Published March 13, 2020|Updated March 14, 2020

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Florida’s chief justice on Friday ordered most face-to-face judicial proceedings involving juries to be suspended for a minimum of two weeks to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

The order from Chief Justice Charles Canady came hours after local courts in the Tampa Bay area postponed all jury trials that were set to begin next week. Canady’s order went further, suspending all grand jury proceedings, jury selection, and criminal and civil trials in the state.

Canady also authorized the chief judges in each of the state’s judicial circuits to establish procedures to conduct court proceedings remotely.

Earlier Friday, courts in Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas Counties all called off jury duty for Monday.

“Considering the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidance, the fact that we have the most densely populated and elderly community in Florida, the existence of known positive cases in our circuit and simple common sense,” Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Chief Judge Anthony Rondolino said in a statement, “it seems unquestionable that requiring large numbers of citizens to report for jury duty in confined spaces is not prudent at this time.”

Several local trials were postponed. That includes the closely-watched trial of former Port Richey Mayor Dale Massad, who stands accused of shooting at Pasco County Sheriff’s deputies serving a search warrant at his home last February.

The attempted murder trial will now start June 22. It was previously scheduled to begin Monday.

“I have bad news for everyone,” Florida Sixth Circuit Court Judge Mary Handsel said at the beginning of a pre-trial hearing Friday morning in the Massad case. “If we have no jurors, we cannot have a trial.”

Two-hundred sixty people had been called for jury selection, Handsel said.

“The decision was made that they didn’t want that many people together in one place,” she said.

Friday wasn’t the first time the trial had been delayed. Massad had been set to go to trial last month, but new evidence cropped up the week before the trial date. That led the defense to ask for a delay. His attorneys have argued that Massad believed that criminals were breaking into his home and was defending himself when he fired at deputies.

Massad’s attorneys filed a stand your ground motion in February. Though attorneys typically argue stand your ground at a separate hearing before trial, attorneys and Handsel had agreed in this case to do it toward the end of the trial, in the interest of staying on schedule.

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Massad’s attorneys said after Friday’s hearing that they hadn’t considered how the new delay will affect the stand your ground aspects of the case, but that the extra time could mean that it shifts to a pre-trial hearing.

The former mayor also faces charges of practicing medicine without a license, as well as several related charges. The trial in that case was set to begin May 11, but Massad’s attorney Denis DeVlaming asked for that trial to be postponed until after the attempted-murder trial.

It is now set for a pre-trial hearing June 22 with no new trial date set.

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