TAMPA, Fla. - There is a looming threat hanging over every courthouse across the nation. Turns out, jury duty could create its own crisis in the justice system and Hillsborough Chief Judge Ron Ficarrotta knows it. “I understand you’re scared I understand your concern,” said Ficarrotta.
Judge Ficarrota is concerned potential jurors will stay away. Some may fear for their health and safety and won’t want to take the risk or can’t afford to take weeks off from work for jury duty. But changes are coming to the courthouse.
“I anticipate everybody coming into this courthouse is going to be wearing a face covering,” he explained. “I anticipate there’s going to be enhanced cleaning protocols and hand sanitizer everywhere.”
The image of hundreds of jurors filing into one courtroom sitting inches apart is long gone. In this new COVID-19 world, keeping jurors safe, from the moment they walk in is a top priority.
For instance, jury selection will be held in a much bigger space. The rows in the gallery are outlined with blue tape, marking where people can and can’t sit.
Court officials are also considering taking jury selection on the road to different venues. “Possibly the Tampa Convention Center might be an area we can look at to set up some temporary courtrooms there or to stage jurors there,” said Judge Ficarrotta. “Or possible using the gym or cafeteria at a nearby elementary school.”
Hillsborough Judge Samantha Ward Handles many of the high profile criminal cases. She said, “Our primary concern is getting Jurors willing and able to come down and help out the criminal justice system we can’t do it without them.”
In capital murder trials, you need up to 16 jurors sitting in the jury box. BUT that can’t happen now. “It’s not going to be what you previously see on TV where 14 people are crowded this box we simply can’t do it that way anymore,” explained Ward
One possibility is seat jurors in the gallery where the public sits.
Court officials also anticipate juror excuses to skip jury duty will be at an all-time high. So as the jury summons roll out in the next few weeks, Judge Ficarrota hopes this message gets delivered too. “If we’re having a jury selection you’re going to be safe,” said Judge Ficarrotta.
The Hillsborough Clerks office says jury summons will be mailed out in two weeks. It will include health questions concerning possible exposure to COVID-19.