While the deadly and highly contagious COVID-19 virus rages across the country, courts are resuming criminal jury trials. In moving forward, judges reference case backlogs, speedy trial rights, and concern for the rights of the accused. Overlooked in this calculus is the importance of juror safety. The Sixth Amendment guarantees “the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury.” There is no justice without jurors.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the justice system sometimes took advantage of juror vulnerability, treating jurors callously, if not rudely, during voir dire by asking them intensely personal questions. During the pandemic, courts have intensified this mistreatment of jurors by exposing them to serious health risks – sometimes to decide cases with minor charges. This exploitation of jurors is irresponsible and short-sighted. By endangering jurors, courts are creating serious due process concerns for the accused and eroding public confidence in an already beleaguered system. If jurors are forced to serve on jury duty without adequate protections, verdicts will be suspect, mistrials will prevail, and many citizens who are fearful or susceptible will fail to appear, creating juries less representative of the community.
Concerns about the virus are already resulting in some jurors defying their legal obligation and refusing to appear for service. Recent surveys show that because of COVID-19, three out of four jurors are at least somewhat nervous about attending a trial and that people of color, Democrats, and older Americans are very concerned about spreading and contracting the virus. When jurors are worried and distracted, they may rush to a verdict – any verdict – or fail to appreciate all of the evidence, resulting in wrongful convictions and erroneous acquittals. And, if even one juror tests positive during the trial, a mistrial may be declared to allow trial participants to quarantine. If we are going to require jurors to serve during this dangerous time, we must protect them to protect the criminal justice system itself.
Wilson, Melanie, "The Pandemic Juror" (2020). UTK Law Faculty Publications. 117.