Court back in session for jury trials in SC after coronavirus closure


GREENVILLE, S.C. (WSPA) – Your constitutional right to a speedy trial hasn’t been possible for months. In March, the coronavirus closed the courts.

While some hearings have happened virtually since then, jury trials have proven to be the most challenging to restart. This week 13th Circuit Court Solicitor Walt Wilkins and his office are starting to call court back into session for jury trials.

Wilkins explained over a Zoom call the challenge has been the fact that picking a jury requires hundreds of people coming to court in close quarters.

“How can we place everybody so that we can comply with social distancing and mask wearing and be able to speak,” said Wilkins.

Solicitors have worked for months with judges and court clerks and they now are confident with a plan to safely conduct court in the age of coronavirus. Masks will be required, jury selection will be conducted in stages with smaller groups, all while keeping everyone 6 feet apart.

Wilkins said summoning the public to leave their homes these days will take on a new challenge.

“Virtual learning. Students attending school for one day a week are creating major childcare issues for jurors and individuals who have double working parents in general,” he explained.

Wilkins said his office will give it a go and seat a jury for a trial in Pickens County this week. That’s something defense attorney Ryan Beasley of Greenville is happy to hear.

“It’s been very challenging,” said Beasley.

When Beasley and other defense lawyers are back in court it certainly won’t look or feel the same for the clients they represent, especially considering the mask requirement.

“I’m gonna have multiple masks. One with a smiley face, one with a sad face and one with a confused look,” Beasley joked.

He brings up a valid point. Wilkins said mask wearing could lead to motions being filed in court.  

“Having a defendant wear a mask could be prejudicial to the defendant. What if it’s an armed robbery case and a mask was worn in the armed robbery,” Wilkins explained.

The biggest issue that’s needed to be resolved is masks interfering with witness testimony.

“Jurors can take into consideration how the person testifies, facial expressions, how their eyes move. They get to assess the credibility of every witness that testifies,” he said.

That’s why WIlkins said there will be no masks worn by witnesses while on the stand. Instead the witness stands will be enclosed with protective plexiglass similar to what’s been installed around all the desks in the solicitor’s office.

“It’s gonna look different than your normal jury trial,” he said.

Wilkins said while his office has started to try cases in Pickens County this week, they won’t start jury trials at the Greenville County Courthouse until November. He and his team of attorneys will have their work cut out for themselves working through 15 to 20 cases currently in the backlog.

Greenville and Pickens aren’t the only counties attempting jury trials. Laurens County successfully conducted court weeks ago.

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