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'A trial like you've never seen'

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Jackson County Circuit Court will be able to deal with out-of-custody cases Monday, June 1, following two months worth of backlogs due to the pandemic. Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Lorenzo Mejia said these trials will look a lot different than we're used to.

"Like I tell the attorneys, a trial like you've never seen," Mejia said.

Following the statewide restrictions on court operations due to COVID-19, Mejia said Jackson County Circuit Court has been continuing to do remote civil cases over the phone or video messaging.

It has also continued to do in-custody cases, speedy trials, and domestic cases over the past two months. Starting June 1, they'll be able to process more criminal cases.

"We have a lot of people in custody right now, who are on some significant stuff, that we're going to have to start dealing with their trials," Mejia said. "I'm not sure if it's going to happen next week, but I'm pretty sure it's going to happen in June."

Mejia said one trial will take up the entire second floor of the courthouse, and they will move a lot slower than usual.

Jurors will be spread out in the jury box and throughout the courtroom, and masks will be worn by everyone in attendance.

"Generally when we start a trial, we start with a big panel of anywhere from 36 to 50 people and the attorneys do their voir dire jury questioning in mass, we're probably going to have to reduce that to six-person panels, so that's going to slow down our jury selection quite a bit," Mejia said.

Deliberations will be moved to larger rooms to ensure social distancing.

Criminal defense lawyer Zachary Newman from the Public Defenders Office said the backlog of cases has everyone moving slower.

"As you saw, the governor and the president continued extending deadlines, so more cases got pushed back," he said. "There are a good amount of cases that need to be addressed, but it seems like everyone is on the same page in understanding that it's coming and we're going to take it head-on."

Mejia said some cases, such as evictions, haven't even been discussed yet.

"We haven't even started the first appearances yet. We're waiting for what the governor says on that," Mejia said.

Mejia said the court is also facing a budget crisis, and they'll have to furlough employees.

"We're just going to have a lot to do with fewer staff, so we're facing quite a challenge, as everyone is facing this COVID-19 emergency," Mejia said.

Masks will not be provided by the courthouse, so people will need to bring their own.

Mejia asked for family and friends to not be present, due to social distancing.

"Obviously if it's a big deal like a trial or a sentencing, then sure. Obviously, we can't stop anybody from coming to the courthouse. They have a right to be here, it's in the constitution, justice shall be open and free," Mejia said.

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