While the deadly and highly contagious COVID-19 virus lingers and spreads across the country, courts are resuming criminal jury trials. In moving forward, judges reference case backlogs, speedy trial rights, and other concerns for the rights of the accused. Overlooked in this calculus is the importance of jurors and their safety. The Sixth Amendment guarantees “the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury.” Without jurors, there is no justice.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the justice system sometimes took advantage of juror vulnerability, treating jurors callously, if not rudely, during voir dire by asking them intensely personal questions. During the pandemic, courts have intensified this harsh treatment of jurors by exposing them to serious health risks—sometimes to decide cases with minor charges. This exploitation of jurors is short sighted. When courts endanger jurors, they create serious due process concerns for the accused and erode public confidence in an already beleaguered system. If jurors are forced to serve on jury duty without adequate safeguards, verdicts will be suspect, mistrials will dominate, and many citizens who are fearful or susceptible will fail to appear (or worse, contract the virus during jury service), resulting in juries less representative of the community.
Concerns over the virus are already resulting in some jurors defying their legal obligation to appear for service. Surveys also show that seventy five percent of jurors are at least somewhat nervous about attending a trial and that people of color, Democrats, and older Americans are very concerned about spreading and contracting COVID-19. When jurors are worried and distracted, they may rush to a verdict—any verdict—or fail to appreciate all the evidence, resulting in wrongful convictions and erroneous acquittals. And, if even one juror tests positive during the trial, a mistrial may be declared to allow trial participants to quarantine. If we are going to require jurors to serve during this dangerous time, we must protect them to protect the criminal justice system itself.