Called to order: Cullman County Courts return to in-person jury trials with COVID-19 safety procedures in place

Hanceville rape trial underway

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New court procedures include placing jurors in the observers’ seats in courtrooms for social distancing. (W.C. Mann for The Cullman Tribune)

Updated 9-16-20 at 10:50 a.m.

CULLMAN, Ala. – Cullman County Circuit Court on Monday began juror selection in its first in-person jury trial since March, with special measures in place to deal with COVID-19 safety and social distancing requirements.

Circuit Clerk Lisa McSwain told The Tribune that jurors came to the courthouse Monday morning in two separate groups at different times, to cut down on the number of people in the courtroom at one time. Once the number of jurors had been reduced to a short list, prospective jurors were brought together in the large circuit courtroom for final selection. Since the trial began, jurors are spaced out through the large seating area usually used for courtroom observers, and sequestering and deliberation will be done in the small circuit courtroom instead of the cramped conference room off of the large courtroom, where jurors are usually sent.

Prior to coming to court, Cullman County jurors, for the first time, had the opportunity to complete juror qualification online.

According to a statement released by the court in August: “Those individuals receiving a summons for September jury duty will be instructed to login to a dedicated and secure website using a unique PIN assigned to each prospective juror. The new juror registration website may be accessed using either a computer, tablet or smart phone. Once logged in, each prospective juror will be asked to complete a brief questionnaire. This new process has been developed in response to the current pandemic and will be the first occasion that online jury qualification has been used.  By completing the form, potential jurors may now qualify for jury service online and may also request to be excused from jury service for any other recognized exception.”

Jurors who believe they may be at heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 due to age or an underlying medical condition or another recognized exception were allowed to use the online form to request to be excused rather than doing so in person.

New protocols adopted to make jury service safer during the current pandemic include sanitizing benches and other frequently touched surfaces before individuals arrive for jury service, checking each potential juror for fever upon entry to the courthouse, social distancing measures while in the courthouse, assigned seats for potential jurors in the courtroom, contactless sanitizing stations outside each courtroom, one-way travel staircases so that individuals do not pass one another when going up and down stairs, limitations on the number of people permitted in an elevator at any one time, a newly configured jury box that will permit jurors to be seated at least six feet from other jurors, and a new jury room that permits jurors to maintain an appropriate social distance during deliberations and recesses.

“There are many unique challenges associated with conducting jury trials during a pandemic but preserving access to a trial by jury is constitutionally required and we have implemented new protocols designed to help keep people safe while those trials are being conducted,” said Presiding Judge Greg Nicholas. “But as important as jury service may be, we also recognize that not everyone is able to serve on a jury during the current pandemic, and the law allows individuals to be excused from jury service under certain circumstances.”

Hanceville rape case underway

Cullman’s return to jury trials begins with the case of Wade Allen Waldrop, 43, of Hanceville who was arrested Dec. 26, 2017 on charges of first-degree (non-statutory) rape, two counts of sexual abuse of a child under the age of 12 and enticing a minor for immoral purposes.

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W.C. Mann

craig@cullmantribune.com