Trial court resumed last week in Colusa County after a four-month delay due to the coronavirus pandemic.
However, jury selection and the county’s first post-outbreak trial looked a bit different – and ended just over 24 hours later when a juror failed to appear the second day due to having COVID-19 symptoms.
Colusa County Presiding Superior Court Judge Jeffrey A. Thompson’s announcement came more than two hours after the robbery and assault trial of admitted Norteños gang member Nicholas Rojas should have resumed on Thursday, but by then, the 14 remaining jurors and alternates, scattered throughout the gallery area (typically reserved for audience members), had already noticed and speculated about the vacant aisle seat where a juror badge and notebook had been left from the previous day.
Thompson said he spoke with Colusa County Health Department officials that morning, who assured him the risk the ill juror posed to others would be very low due to heightened safety precautions taken during court proceedings, should he test positive for the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Thompson assured the approximately 26 people in the courtroom that day, including court personnel and the defendant, that the possibility of contracting the virus during the proceedings was likely lower than going to a grocery store.
“The exposure is no greater than what we all experience in our everyday life,” Thompson said.
Colusa County Superior Court, like all courts in California, has functioned with limited court operations since March. Most civil matters are still delayed, and until June 15, all jury trials had been temporarily suspended.
Due to the state of emergency, the state allotted more than $5 million in funds to help reimburse California courts for the cost to implement safety measures, such as extra cleaning, sanitizer, masks, signage, screening, and physical barriers to keep people separated inside courtrooms.
But the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees that criminal defendants have the right to a public trial without unnecessary delay.
“Even in the era of COVID-19, necessary court proceedings must go on,” Thompson said during jury selection on July 29.
Prior to the trial, Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, Chief Justice of the California Judicial Council, authorized Thompson to hold court anywhere in the county that he felt would provide the greatest safety and physical space, thus jury selection was moved to the Colusa Theatre for the Performing Arts, located in the former Colusa Union High School on 10th Street.
The old high school, now business offices for Colusa Unified School District, was built in 1926 and earned its placement on the national Register of Historic Places in 1996.
The jury selection process started outside to allow for proper physical distancing guidelines. Prospective jurors wore masks and stayed six feet apart as they were ushered into and seated in the auditorium, known for its chandeliered vaulted ceiling.
As if in a theatrical performance, the judge sat at a table in the center of the elevated stage – flanked by the parties at dispute, court bailiffs, court recorder, and executive clerk.
“This is a new experience for all of us,” he said.
Although Thompson said one of the most difficult aspects of seating a jury is sifting through the excuses, coronavirus brought more to the bench than just the typical excuses of ‘preconceived bias’ or ‘guilty until proven innocent.’ Despite a handful of court clerks pumping hand sanitizer into their palms before putting on black latex gloves, one potential juror told the judge she would not accept a jury badge because she felt the clerk’s hands were not clean enough to keep her safe, even though the CDC in May dispelled fears that coronavirus was transferred easily on surfaces.
Nevertheless, the 71-year-old woman was released to leave, as were others in the most vulnerable age group to have complications from the virus.
For the most part, those summoned for jury service were very cooperative, and Thompson said Colusa County residents typically take their civic duty seriously.
“It is truly a unique opportunity, and most jury members appreciate the opportunity,” Thompson said.
A few hours after selection began, Colusa County Chief Deputy District Attorney Brendan Farrell and Public Defender Albert Smith selected 10 men and five women of mixed ages and ethnicities to serve as a 12-member jury with three alternates.
Following a lengthy break, the first post COVID-19 trial got underway at 3 PM in Department 2, inside the courthouse annex building on Oak Street, in Colusa, where the jury heard opening arguments by the prosecution and defense, followed by testimony of the first two scheduled witnesses.
Due to a possibly sick juror, Colusa County’s first post-pandemic trial ended amicably with an agreement between the parties at dispute for Rojas to accept a plea deal that would greatly lower his risk of a long prison sentence.
Thompson then thanked the members of the jury for their service – releasing them to go about their business as normal. ■