TAMPA — The first jurors arrived at 7:30 a.m. Security officers scanned their foreheads with digital thermometers and gave them pink ribbons to wear around their wrists before entering the George Edgecomb Courthouse in downtown.
In an auditorium, they sat spaced far apart. Before 9 a.m., they moved in pairs up the elevators to the sixth floor, where they waited to enter Hillsborough County’s largest courtroom. Inside, a box of Clorox wipes and a can of disinfectant spray sat on the witness stand.
Hillsborough Circuit Judge Samantha Ward donned a dark mask as she took the bench.
“Are you ready for this?” she was asked.
“No,” she said. “The question is are the jurors ready for it?”
Jury trials returned to Tampa courtrooms Monday, seven months after the coronavirus pandemic forced their suspension statewide.
Court business has kept moving through remote hearings and a few socially distant in-person proceedings.
But there have been no trials. And the legal system cannot function without them.
Last month, as the number of local positive COVID-19 cases dropped, court officials allowed Hillsborough to enter what’s known as “phase two” of a four-step reopening plan.
The 13th Judicial Circuit, which includes Hillsborough County, is the first Tampa Bay area court system to resume jury trials. Jury trials in the 6th Judicial Circuit, which includes Pinellas and Pasco Counties, are set to begin next week.
With trials come new precautions and procedures, and new ideas for how courtrooms will operate.
“It’s going to take a little bit more time and it’s going to require a lot more patience on the part of everyone,” said Hillsborough Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta.
Previously, all courtrooms would start their trials the same morning. But now in Tampa, judges will stagger their schedules throughout the week, to avoid having too many jurors in the courthouse at once.
Batches of prospective jurors arrived at different times, the first at 7:30 a.m., the next at 10 a.m., and a third at 1 p.m.
The Hillsborough Clerk of the Circuit Court sent summons to 800 prospective jurors. On Monday, 208 people showed up, a 26-percent show rate, a slight decrease from the 30 percent who typically showed before the pandemic.
They wore masks. They kept far apart. When they left the jury auditorium, court personnel sanitized the seats. Signs placed on courthouse benches served as reminders about social distancing. Plastic covers prohibited drinks from water fountains.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys must grapple with a backlog of cases.
In the seven months that jury trials were on hold, Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren’s office estimated that they normally would have conducted about 180 to 200 trials. Many cases are on hold, but poised for trial.
“It’s going to take quite a while to get out from under the backlog,” Warren said. “It’s like playing the first seven innings of an entire 162-game (baseball) season, but not finishing the last two innings. The difficulty is how do we play the next season while still making up all the games from last season?”
They have prioritized older cases, where defendants have been awaiting trial for years.
The first to go is Erin Lee Robinson. He is charged with first-degree felony murder, burglary and witness tampering related to the 2014 death of Raul Ortiz in Wimauma.
Authorities say that Robinson beat Ortiz after Ortiz made sexual comments about his girlfriend. Robinson has claimed it was self-defense, invoking Florida’s stand your ground law.
Robinson, 25, sat Monday at a defense table in the cavernous courtroom, clad in a dark suit and a dark blue mask, beside two assistant public defenders.
Six women and eight men gazed at him through clear plastic face shields. They filled two long wooden benches, sitting 6 feet apart. Dozens more prospective jurors watched from outside the courtroom on a set of TV’s. Some fidgeted. Some looked tired, some annoyed.
“We could not do what we do in this courthouse ... without people like you who take this responsibility seriously,” Judge Ward told them.
Lawyers wore masks as they looked over the panelists. When the judge or the lawyers spoke, they ditched the masks and donned clear plastic face shields.
Panelists were asked standard questions: Had they ever served as jurors before? Could they presume Robinson is innocent? Did they understand that it is the state’s burden to prove him guilty?
But amid the routine, there were new inquiries: How do you feel about having to wear face coverings? Do you have trouble wearing a mask for a long time?
No one expressed strong reservations.
One man had a question of his own: Would the defendant be wearing a mask during the trial? Or would the jury be able to see his facial expressions?
During a break, Robinson traded his mask for a clear shield.
“These things are annoying to wear,” defense attorney Maria Dunker told the panel. “I’m sure you can imagine how much more difficult this would be if we all had masks covering us.”
Dunker asked jurors how they would feel about coming to the courthouse every day for a week.
One woman said she’d been staying at home for the last several months.
“I’m just happy to be out," she said.
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