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Some Madison County trials start next month, capital murder cases delayed until 2021

The presiding judge told us they're updating safety measures.

Posted: Sep 11, 2020 7:41 PM

WAAY 31 learned what changes you'll see when some jury trials resume in Madison next month.

The added safety measures will be put in place over the next few weeks.

Ruth Ann Hall, Madison County Presiding Judge, said she's been preparing for the return of trials for months. While some hearings were held virtually during the restrictions put in place due to coronavirus, some couldn't be.

She explained some Plexiglass barriers were quickly installed in courtrooms to keep people safe during hearings that needed to be held in-person. More will be added in the coming weeks.

Hall said they're one of the easiest ways to keep people safe without hindering testimony.

"If they don't talk succinctly and pronounce their words it will be very difficult to hear when they have a mask on, so as long as we got the plexiglass and maintaining distance we like to allow for people to take their mask off so we all can hear and understand the testimony," Judge Hall said.

Hall said under new social distancing rules only two courtrooms will be big enough for holding jury trials.

Before anyone gets there, Hall explained they'll have to go through a thermal scanner that will be installed at security. Anyone with a temperature of 100.4 degrees won't be allowed into the courthouse. She said only limited seating will be available in the courtroom. She said jurors will now deliberate in courtrooms, which will be locked to the public.

Judge Hall did say anyone who receives a juror summons will be required to fill out a questionnaire either online by using a PIN or requesting one by mail. It will include court questions and coronavirus questions to help keep large groups from gathering at the courthouse at once. Hall said the new process she thinks will become permanent.

Judge Hall also told us once the Madison County Service Center is complete and some services move out of the courthouse, they'll be able to quickly add make-shift court rooms out of office space on the first floor to help them get caught up on trials. That facility is expected to be complete early next year.

Judge Hall said eight capital murder cases that were scheduled to be tried this year. Now, they won't go to trial until 20-21 at the earliest. She said about half of the capital murder cases scheduled for trial this year were cases where the state is seeking the death penalty.

She said the decision to postpone capital murder cases until 2021 wasn't an easy one, but it was something that the judges decided was necessary because of safety concerns with coronavirus.

"A capital case is very stressful. For the lawyers, the families, for the judge. It's a very stressful event and some of the testimony can be very difficult to hear," she said.

Hall explained that because of all the work that goes into a capital murder case, it's important to make sure there's not a mistrial. They could run into that risk if the jury, attorneys, defendant or judge in a case gets sick.

"You certainly don't want to have to have a family or a defendant to go through that multiple times," she said.

She explained many with social distancing practices in place in courtrooms, there's not space for people who are usually there during a capital cases, like the victim or suspects family or members of the public.

She said once the cases are heard, the changes will make them different than the past.

"We will have technology available to where. They will be able to view the court proceedings in another area. Whether that's another courtroom, another room but it will be remote access," Judge Hall said.

She explained doing the entire trial virtually is not something that she feels comfortable with.

"We've done as many trials as we could by virtual hearings, but trials are something different. You need to be present in my opinion for trials especially one where you could be taking someone's liberty from them potentially," she said.

Hall said safety will continue to be a priority.

"We're doing everything to be careful, to be safe and move cases as quickly as we can," Judge Hall explained.

Judge Hall said she expects for these trials to take longer than usual. She explained because of the social distancing and safety practices, jury selection alone could take a least a week because they can't bring more than 100 potential jurors in the courthouse at one time.

Madison County will resume all other trials Oct. 19. Over the next month, they'll be evaluating any changes that need to happen as those start up.

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