The Canton Multipurpose Center lived up to its name on Tuesday, Sept. 8, as it became the venue for the selection of a Madison County Circuit Court jury. The trial moved to the Circuit Courthouse on Wednesday, Sept. 9.
Jury trials began this week in Circuit Courts in Madison and Hinds counties after six months of delays due to COVID-19. Hinds County jurors were summoned last week to the Westin hotel for jury qualification. A jury selected from that pool on Tuesday began hearing a civil case at the Hinds County Courthouse in Jackson.
Rankin County Circuit Court also has not been able to have a jury trial since mid-March. Jury qualifying was conducted on Tuesday at the Brandon Municipal Complex. Criminal trials scheduled to begin next week have a pool of 74 potential jurors waiting. Several defendants set for trial on Tuesday pleaded guilty in Rankin County Circuit Court. Two people on the docket failed to appear, said Circuit Judge Dewey Arthur. Three others scheduled for trial on later dates pleaded guilty on Tuesday. Having a jury ready moves cases to resolution, often by way of a guilty pleas.
Because large numbers of people are summoned for jury service, jury qualification and selection was moved to larger facilities to provide social distancing. “This was the largest place that I could find,” Circuit Judge John Emfinger said during a break in jury selection at the Canton Multipurpose Center. The large activity room would seat 91 people. Judge Emfinger split the prospective jurors into two groups, conducting jury qualifying with one group in the morning and with a second group in the afternoon. By mid-afternoon, 88 people were ready to serve as jurors.
When trials moved back to courthouses, courtrooms were rearranged to continue social distancing and provide extra safety measures. In Madison County Circuit Court, three-sided plexiglass enclosures were installed around each juror’s chair. In Hinds County Circuit Court, jurors sat spaced out in what would ordinarily be spectator seats. Circuit Judge Winston Kidd moved the trial from his regular courtroom to the largest courtroom in the building.
Judge Emfinger said, “It’s just a matter of making sure we are as safe as possible.” In an effort to deter sick people from coming to court, letters were sent to all prospective jurors telling them not to come to court if they were ill, were caring for someone who was ill, or if they had other risk factors. Everyone wore masks. The courtroom will be cleaned multiple times each day. Blue tape “x” marks on a counsel table and on courtroom seats remind everyone to keep their distance. Jurors will deliberate in an adjacent courtroom rather than the jury room.
Judge Emfinger told potential jurors, “You are here today to try to relieve that (backlog) that has built up over the past six months.” He said, “I’ve often heard that jury service is the most important peace time service that you can do. That is especially true during these times.”
Circuit Judge Steve Ratcliff, who has cases set for trial next week in Rankin County Circuit Court, said, “COVID has required us to make certain adjustments to our dockets. We want to make sure the system moves as fairly and expeditiously as possible with as many safeguards as we can manage.”
The Madison County Circuit Court case is the trial of Darius D. Johnson, 32, of Canton who is charged with aggravated assault in the April 23, 2019, shooting of his cousin.
The Hinds County Circuit Court case on trial is Ashley Nicole Newton-Taylor v. David L. Kirk and I.B. Logistics Inc.