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Here's what reporting for jury duty will look like when Kent County trials restart Oct. 19

Courthouse takes series of COVID-19 precautions

Emily Lytle
Dover Post

This story has been edited to clarify the number of documents included with the summons.

Jury duty is making a comeback in Kent County this month. 

After postponing all trials by jury since March, court staff has sent out jury summonses, and trials will start again Oct. 19, meaning people will once again return to the courthouse.

The announcement comes after Chief Justice Collins J. Seitz Jr. determined that the courts would move into Phase 3 of their reopening plan, which increased the number of people allowed in the court buildings up to 75% capacity.

Mary Pat Fitzpatrick, deputy prothonotary, sits behind plexiglass. Signs in the office remind people to socially distance and wear masks. The office typically includes several public computers, and some of those stations have moved to the front of the building to encourage social distancing.

Recognizing that the traditional method of calling in more than 200 potential jurors was not the safest option, a working group made up of criminal and civil lawyers, judges and key staff, completely redesigned the jury process.

And the Chief Justice and courts staff have worked with infectious disease expert Dr. Alfred Bacon and state health officials to ensure COVID-19 precautions are followed. 

From the moment people receive their summons in the mail, things will look a little different when it comes to jury duty.

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Staff clean high-contact areas like railings and elevator buttons more often.

We broke it down so you can know what to expect. 

You’ve been summoned

When the jury summons arrives in the mail, it will include an enhanced juror questionnaire with a link where people can learn more about what to expect or view frequently asked questions (de.gov/juryfaq).

Since some people may be at higher risk of contracting the virus or may be facing extra financial or family hardships due to the pandemic, the courts are loosening the requirements for requesting an excusal. The extra questionnaire helps identify any additional reasons – related to COVID-19 or not – that someone might not be able to serve on the jury.

Chief of Community Relations Sean O’Sullivan said this “more rigorous screening process” prevents people from unnecessarily coming into the building. 

To reduce the amount of people coming in at one time, only about 45 jurors will be called and they will be assigned to one specific trial. 

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One entrance, one exit

When anyone arrives at the Kent County Courthouse, they must enter through the side entrance closest to The Green. To exit, they will use the front doors facing Legislative Mall.

Before all visitors and staff enter the Kent County Courthouse, Capitol Police asks them a series of COVID-19 screening questions and tests their temperature, as seen here where Chief of Community Relations Sean O'Sullivan shows how the thermometer works.

As people walk up to security, Capitol Police will ask them a series of COVID-19 screening questions. Police will then scan their temperature from a distance. 

Signs on the walls … and floors

Once people pass through security, they will see a barrier dividing the main hallway into two one-way aisles. Arrows on the floor point people in the correct direction.

The stairways work the same way: one is for people going up and one is for people going down. If taking the elevator, it is limited to two people at a time.

A view of the main hallway from the second floor of the Kent County Courthouse. Barriers create two one-way paths.

Signs throughout the courthouse remind people to social distance and wear masks at all times. Court staff will direct jurors up the stairs toward Courtroom One.

On the way, people may notice staff cleaning high-contact areas like handrails and elevator buttons, part of the amplified cleaning efforts throughout the building, O’Sullivan said. 

Courtroom One

Typically, potential jurors check in and gather in a room on the first floor where rows of chairs fill the space.

While some chairs were blocked off with blue tape in an attempt to keep people socially distant, O’Sullivan said, “It was obvious to us that we couldn’t make this space work.”

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The only courtroom in the building big enough to allow for social distancing was Courtroom One, he said, which is in the original courthouse. Staff will direct people through a bridge that connects the two buildings.

Jurors in Kent County will go through the jury process in Courtroom One. The biggest and oldest courtroom is in the county's original courthouse, and people will get there by crossing a bridge that connects the two buildings.

“You can’t beat the history of this place," O'Sullivan said, "and the feeling that you’re in a courthouse and you’re dealing with a serious legal proceeding.”

Before the pandemic, jurors would move around the building for different parts of the jury process, but now they will stay in this one courtroom for almost every step – including the trial.

The judge will begin the voir dire, or general interviewing of jurors, in the courtroom, and they will raise their hands if a question applies to them. If the judge needs to ask individualized questions, those people will walk across the hall and meet with the judge in Courtroom Two.

If the judge needs to talk to individual jurors for questioning, that will happen here in Courtroom Two. It is a short walk across the hall from Courtroom One.

The selected panel will find their seats labeled by juror number. Deliberations will happen in a separate courtroom. 

Plexiglass separates the counsel tables and surrounds the witness box, and O’Sullivan said more may be added later. Seats are blocked off intermittently to social distance jurors and members of the public who come to observe.

Like any trial, seats for the public will be available first come first serve, O’Sullivan said. 

The first cases tried will be in the Superior Court and they will not involve anyone who is incarcerated since that requires additional security measures.

O’Sullivan said Court of Common Pleas trials will begin again in January. 

For more, visit https://courts.delaware.gov/aoc/covid-19.