Local News

Criminal trials restart in one Wake courthouse, while virus forces reduced operations at second

Posted November 17, 2020 9:37 a.m. EST
Updated November 17, 2020 7:04 p.m. EST

— As the first criminal trial in months gets underway at the Wake County Justice Center, several courtrooms in the nearby Wake County Courthouse are closed until further notice after five coronavirus cases were reported among staff in the past three weeks.

The coronavirus pandemic forced an eight-month recess in trials across North Carolina, but courts are slowly returning to session. Each county had to submit a plan to state court officials with details on how it planned to resume trials safely.

For Wake County's first trial this week, which involves a felon caught with a firearm, 44 people showed up for jury duty.

"When they come into the courthouse , they're given a packet with cleaning supplies," Chief resident Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway said.

Each juror is also given a clear mask so attorneys can see their expressions and understand them better. During jury selection, jurors are spaced 6 feet apart in the portion of the courtroom usually reserved for the public. They're also seated in different courtrooms, with a video stream connecting them.

"In [Courtroom] 702, there are about 20 jurors sitting," Ridgeway said. "We're talking to these 25, but those folks can hear us and see us."

Attorney tables are turned around to face the jury – now in the audience – and witnesses testify from the former jury box.

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman says the months without any trials have created a backlog.

"We currently have 55 murder trials waiting," Freeman said. "This is a balancing act to do what we need to do to guarantee constitutional rights and public safety while also keeping people healthy."

Officials expect the trial to last about a week. The court will then begin scheduling more trials, using what was learned from this first one as a guide.

Meanwhile, at the Wake County Courthouse on Fayetteville Street, domestic courtrooms 2A, 2B, 2C and 2D and civil courtroom 9C will be closed for several days because of a coronavirus outbreak.

All family court matters and trials, along with small claims court proceedings, will be rescheduled.

All other civil courtrooms in the courthouse remain open. Emergency filings should be left on the first floor of the Wake County Courthouse in a designated drop box, officials said.

"These are completely two different buildings, completely two different staffs," Freeman said. "We have worked and had in place from the beginning of this a separation of operations plan, and so the criminal courts are continuing as they would on any normal day."

The staff members who tested positive are in isolation at their homes, and anyone who had close contact with them was told to quarantine and to not return to work until they had a negative coronavirus test. Still, court officials decided it was prudent to close four family courts, one general civil district court, small claims court and court filings.

"We felt like it was appropriate to scale back operations over there and to try and make sure we're doing everything we can to keep court personnel and the public safe, Freeman said.

"We're hoping that by reducing the operations in about five courtrooms, which are mostly district courtrooms, and also reducing operations at the front counter, we will be able to nip this spread in the bud," Ridgeway said. "If there's a hero in this building, it's the clerks office. They're the ones who interact with the public every day. They're moving papers around, interacting with a lot of other court personnel. They're the ones we need to protect the most."

The closures are expected to last through the week and possibly into next week as officials continue to assess the situation.

Weddings are being performed by appointment only on weekdays between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. outside the Wake County Detention Center. Effective Nov. 30, all weddings will be performed inside the Justice Center in Courtroom 901.

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