Coronavirus Impact: Pandemic creates challenges as San Francisco tries to resume jury trials

Kate Larsen Image
ByKate Larsen KGO logo
Thursday, July 2, 2020
The Superior Court of California County of San Francisco is pictured in an undated file photo.
The Superior Court of California County of San Francisco is pictured in an undated file photo.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- San Francisco is trying to get its first criminal trial started since the pandemic began, but the District Attorney's Office says the pandemic is creating a big challenge when it comes to jury trials.

According to a San Francisco court spokesperson on Monday, June 29, 83 of 90 jurors reported remotely for jury duty. Five people reported in person to the courthouse and all were excused for hardships.

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According to the courts, on Wednesday July 1, out of 135 jurors instructed to report, 127 reported remotely per new instructions by San Francisco's Superior Court that give people the option to report online or in person. Eight people reported in person to the courthouse.

According to the District Attorney's Office, of the eight people who showed up to court, half of them were dismissed, leaving just four prospective jurors for the trial, who appeared in person.

"It's taken a process that ordinarily would take a couple days at the most and turned it into a several week long process," said San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who needs a jury for the city's first trial since the pandemic hit, a violent felony home invasion case.

"About 98% of criminal cases settle before trial, but the ones that go to trial help determine the way the other cases settle and it's a really important part of what we do to respect the rights of defendants."

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As challenging as the poor jury attendance makes a trial, Boudin says he understands the concern. "COVID-19 is a game changer. We don't want people who are vulnerable or who live with people who are vulnerable to have to come in and I also don't want people who have childcare responsibilities because of closed schools and day cares to have nowhere to leave their children."

Last week, Jennifer Chou-Green, who lives in San Francisco, postponed her jury duty because she's concerned about COVID-19.

"It's fundamental to our constitutional process in order for people to have a jury trial. I really felt kind of conflicted about it and originally I had planned to serve, but when I thought about it more, it just seemed too risky."

In San Mateo County, 60% of the summoned jurors showed up to court this month for the county's first criminal trial since the pandemic began.

Wagstaffe says, during jury selection, the court socially distanced people in different rooms.

"Once the trial got going they took the jurors and had them spaced probably a good 6-8 feet apart, everyone wearing a mask, out in the audience, in the gallery. They had the defense attorney and the defendant up in the jury box, they had the prosecutor sitting near the counsel table."

Boudin says his office has been exploring doing hearings virtually. But he does not foresee taking jury trials, where evidence is so important to see and understand in person, onto a computer screen.

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