Caldwell County will begin holding jury trials in Superior Court next week, the chief Superior Court judge said.
People participating in jury trials must wear masks and socially distance from one another, and jurors will be placed in areas where they are able to be spaced out, said Judge Robert C. Ervin.
Trials will resume in civil cases on March 8 and in criminal cases on March 15, Ervin said.
Trials statewide had been suspended last spring by North Carolina Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, who issued a series of directives that shuttered many parts of the court system due to rising COVID-19 cases, but Beasley lost her bid for re-election.
New Chief Justice Paul Newby, sworn in Jan. 6 after narrowly defeating Beasley, gave local court systems the authority to decide when to resume trials.
Local court system leaders feel comfortable resuming jury trials now because far fewer people are testing positive for COVID-19, Ervin said.
Court officials intend to take precautions.
“If anybody gets sick, we’ll try to get them out of there as quickly as we can. Crossing our fingers, we all hope that with the general numbers improving, the odds of avoiding that hopefully will be a little better,” Ervin said.
Ervin said that while there is a risk that a trial could end in a mistrial if those involved become sick with COVID-19, he sees no way to avoid that possibility.
“Anybody who comes down with it and is sick, they’ve got to leave the building and go seek medical attention. If you get enough jurors sick or you get lawyers or parties sick with COVID and they have to leave, that creates a problem on whether you can continue with the trial,” he said.
Some cases may move more quickly through the court system now because some defendants have been reluctant to agree to plea deals while trials were suspended. Knowing they could soon be convicted at trial provides an incentive to make a deal for a more lenient sentence than they could get at trial.
“The prospect of actually having a jury trial puts people in a position to make decisions,” Ervin said.
Reporter Kara Fohner can be reached at 828-610-8721.