County postpones trials in January

JOHN ZAVINSKI | Herald fileExterior lighting illuminates the Mercer County Courthouse just after sunset.

MERCER – A shortage of jurors, due to the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Mercer County Court of Common Pleas to postpone criminal and civil jury trials for a second consecutive month.

Court Administrator Bo D. McCleary said the courts postponed trials in December, but no decision has been made about February yet.

"We're deciding month-to-month, figuring out what the best decision could be," McCleary said. 

McCleary said he is "without a doubt" sure that there will be a backlog of cases when the court's resume trials.

"We have on tap three potential murder trials that have been postponed," McCleary said. "And a plethora of other cases requesting a jury trial, both criminal and civil."

With COVID-19 numbers at a high level in the county, the court is having trouble finding jurors for jury trials.

"People don't want to leave their house," McCleary had said. "It's very challenging to reassure them we are trying to do as much as possible on our end."

Since the pandemic began 10 months ago, the county has taken steps to increase safety. Those procedures include calling potential jurors in smaller groups and splitting those groups in the courthouse's two largest courtrooms.

McCleary said the county is not penalizing those who cite COVID-19 as a reason to avoid jury duty.

“It comes down to a moral obligation,” McCleary said. “Do we really want someone coming in here expressing a concern? It comes down to if they express a major concern for COVID.”

But people concerned about the pandemic are not avoiding jury duty entirely. The county is rescheduling their jury service.

McCleary said the county is taking measures to decrease risk to everyone, including potential jurors, who comes into the courthouse. 

Anyone who visits the courthouse must wear a mask at all times and go through screening, including a temperature check, when entering the building. McCleary said the courthouse has multiple hand sanitizer stations around the courthouse.

McCleary also said a special night cleaning crew sprays every office and courtroom after closing every day.

Inside the courtrooms, courthouse officials have installed plexiglass in key positions around judges, attorneys’ tables and witness boxes.

Everyone in courtrooms, including jurors and potential jurors, are kept 6 feet apart.

“I think we’re trying to do as much as possible here,” McCleary had said. “We’re doing as much as we can while continuing, as courts should. It’s difficult to do but I think we’re doing a pretty good job.” 

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