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Judicial district set to resume jury trials

The wheels of justice that famously grind slowly have ground slower still in the past 11 months behind facemasks and plexiglass shields, via computer screens and in trial by appointment.


Residents who receive jury notices shrink back in horror. Accused felons are warehoused in a jail cell as they await the resumption of jury trials to determine their fate. And the banging of a gavel to bring a proceeding to order has been replaced by the banging of nails and buzzing of saws that have repurposed the courtroom space for socially distanced justice in the pandemic world.
“There’s been quite a bit of destruction and construction done in the courtroom to make sure that we can seat jurors in the courtroom both during jury selection and during a trial where they are six feet apart,” J. Tyler Ray, Henderson County’s clerk of superior court said. “All the courtroom capacities have been significantly reduced since last March. When the jury pool is in the building, it’s split up into morning and afternoon pools. It looks a lot different in the courtroom than it did before March of 2020.”
Recognizing the bond of trust required to keep the system afloat — jury duty is, after all, by definition, a service in close quarters — Ray tries to assure the prospective jurors.
“Their safety and wellbeing is very important to me,” he said. “We’re trying to work very hard to keep them safe when they’re here in the building in the very important work they need to do here.”
Henderson County has had just one jury trial since the coronavirus struck, in Civil Superior Court.
“It went well, then the numbers shot back up,” Ray said. “The grand jury has been working, with some constitutionally mandated work.”
Peter Knight, the chief resident Superior Court judge, said congregating people close together is one reason jury trials have been almost nonexistent under orders from the state.
“The biggest concern is the management of those citizens who are good enough to come in and observe their duty in the courthouse,” he said in an interview. “Obviously, we can’t summon large pools because we have to be able to accommodate those folks and maintain appropriate distances between them, whether they’re in the courtroom or awaiting use of the courtroom. We’ve had to summon smaller pools but more pools of jurors and address jury selection on step-by-step basis with those smaller pools.”
“The prospective jurors, their concerns, are of utmost concern to Mr. Ray,” he said. “I and other folks involved in the court likewise respect that and will do whatever we can to make their service as comfortable as possible.”

D.A. resolves cases


District Attorney Greg Newman still comes to work every day because criminals work every day. Last March, he and his team of prosecutors sorted out cases that likely were never destined for a jury trial.
“We highlighted those. We decided, Let’s concentrate on these and get them dealt with and resolved,” he said. “We were pretty successful with that. These are cases that had been indicted and were in Superior Court, so you’re talking a couple hundred cases. … We probably have been a little more aggressive about resolving cases in District Court that would have gone to Superior Court. We tried to reach a resolution on those just to keep our numbers more manageable.”
Did that mean defendants got a Covid discount on jail time? Newman acknowledged there was some truth in that.
“We haven’t given away the courthouse but we’ve been more willing to agree on some of the terms,” he said. “In other words, many times we will let someone plead guilty to a reduced charge or we’ll combine several charges and we’ll let the judge determine the outcome. There’s some risk there for the defendants because they don’t really know what’s going to happen to them. We have been more willing to agree to probationary terms in some of the cases.”

The state Supreme Court’s newly elected chief justice, Paul Newby, has eased restrictions on jury trials, giving judges and clerks in judicial districts far greater flexibility.
“Chief Justice Newby is moving away from the one-size-fits-all restriction approach and has given more authority to the local officials about what’s safe and appropriate in the local court systems,” Ray said. “We have set up our courtrooms and our jury systems here in compliance with all the Covid guidelines that have been given to us and in consultation with the local health officials so when we do resume jury service it’s going to be with social distancing and all the proper protocols.”
In the judicial district made up of Henderson, Polk and Transylvania counties, the decision ultimately lies with Judge Knight. He has set a jury trial for next week in Civil Superior Court in Polk County and expects jury trials to resume in Henderson and Transylvania counties “in the immediate future.”
“I have talked with each of the clerks of Superior Court in our district, all of whom desire to proceed with our written plans for adhering to Covid safeguards during any trial, and all of whom have been very respectful of the concerns of those citizens who may be summoned for jury duty,” he said in an email. (County-by-county plans for the resumption of jury trials may be found on the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts website.)

Stroupe trial could happen this summer

Newman said he’s tried to clear the deck as much as possible so he and his assistants D.A.s are ready when jury trials resume.
We know at some point we’re going to be able to have jury trials and the last thing I wanted was to be even more weighted down than we normally are,” he said. “I run behind on a good day. If we gain some sort of normalcy, we’re going to be in better shape than we would have been.”
Now, the jury trials are only weeks away.
“What the health directors in all the counties are telling me now is that they do believe we will be in much better position to have jury cases really after June,” he said. “The way things are trending, they believe we ought to be able to do more.”
The highest profile case pending in Henderson County is the trial of Phillip Michael Stroupe, who is accused of murder for the July 2017 death of Thomas A. “Tommy” Bryson.
“We’re hoping to get that off the ground in July or August,” Newman said. “We’ve been ready three times,” only to have the trial delayed. The first time was in June 2019, when Stroupe’s chief defense attorney was removed from the case, and the next was last March, the pandemic erased nearly all jury trials. The district has two other pending murder cases, one other in Henderson County and one in Polk. Newman still worries that seating a jury poses a challenge.
“The problem that were facing now is people are still very fearful of coming in and being around other people and I certainly understand that,” he said. “Out of a hundred juror notices we’re likely to get 20-25 percent of people willing to come in. It’s hard to accomplish very much with that kind of response.”
Although lockdown orders have reduced travel and socializing for many people, the pandemic has not resulted in a drop in crime, said Newman, who sees the accused when they line up for a first appearance in District Court.
“It hasn’t let up very much at all,” he said. With the economic hardship people are facing, thefts and break-ins have remained steady. “Those that are struggling with drug abuse — I don’t think this has helped their mindset any,” he said. “We have seen an increase in family violence. People are still consuming alcohol and other narcotics and driving.” Some at-risk young people who “may not be taking full advantage” of remote learning “have more time on their hands. There hasn’t been a lack of activity for law enforcement.”