One year after the coronavirus pandemic forced local courts to shut down, Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans has announced that criminal trials are now scheduled to resume next month.
Evans on Wednesday announced target dates to resume in-person jury trials on March 22 at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse at 26th Street and on March 29 at the Bridgeview Courthouse. Summonses for prospective jurors are already arriving in mailboxes across the county this week.
“The right to a trial by jury is a cornerstone of our democracy, and jury service is one of the most important things that you can do as a citizen,” Evans said in letters to jurors. “Due to the coronavirus pandemic, we have established procedures to safeguard the health of all persons in the courthouses. Every reasonable precaution will be taken to protect the health and safety of the jurors, parties, witnesses, lawyers and court staff during jury selection and the trial to follow.”
Jury trials were suspended last March during the initial COVID-19 outbreak and courts face an enormous backlog of cases that must be handled.
According to Evans’ office, the Cook County Circuit Court has been working with local health experts and will take “multiple precautions” against coronavirus spread, to ensure both safety and proper distancing.
More than one courtroom will be used for each trial, according to the chief judge’s office. One courtroom will be used for the trial itself, while another will be used for jury deliberations. A third courtroom will also be available for a livestream broadcast of the trial to the public.
All prospective jurors entering the courthouse must also wear masks or face coverings, answer health questions and submit to a temperature check before entering a courthouse. Spaces such as restrooms, jury assembly rooms, courtrooms and jury deliberation rooms will be cleaned daily, and hand sanitizer will be made available.
And the age for deferment from jury service has been lowered from age 70 and older to 65 and older.
But Evans’ office asks that only those prospective jurors with extreme hardships seek to be excused.
“The court and I thank you in advance for your valuable and important service,” Evans said in a statement.