The first jury trial since the COVID-19 hiatus has resulted in quarantine for the Hennepin County district judge presiding over it, after a member of her staff tested positive for the coronavirus.
Judge Kerry Meyer said she has been in quarantine since Monday, only a few days after the trial was held as part of Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea’s phased-in return to the state’s courtrooms following a three-month pause prompted by the pandemic.
In an e-mail sent Wednesday to court administrators, Gildea said a member of Meyer’s staff fell ill and tested positive for the virus early this week. That person had been in “close contact” with the judge last week, according to Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines that define close contact as being within 6 feet of someone for more than 15 minutes.
In her e-mail response to the Star Tribune, Meyer said the person with whom she was in close contact “did not exhibit any symptoms until late at night on Friday, June 5,” and notified the two people with whom they had contact as soon as they got the result.
Meyer said she notified her human resources department about those with whom she had been in close contact.
The judge said the trial occurred Wednesday and Thursday in a courtroom larger than 1,800 square feet. Jurors wore masks and were seated throughout the courtroom at least 6 feet apart. Meyer said there were never more than 14 jurors in the courtroom, and acrylic barriers separated them from others.
“Because of these precautions, no juror was ever in close contact with me, my staff, or counsel during their time in the courtroom,” she wrote.
But she said she also reached out to jurors and lawyers “to notify them of my situation and to advise them that they did not have close contact, under the CDC’s definition, with me, or those I had close contact with during voir dire or the trial.”
The jury never deliberated because the case didn’t reach a conclusion. The prosecutor dropped the case when a witness was unavailable, Gildea wrote.
For State Public Defender Bill Ward, the incident “certainly sheds light on how scary this is.” He has raised many concerns about the return to live trials in courtrooms, and he said he worried that jurors concerned for their own safety may not be able to adequately focus on the evidence.
The trial was part of a rolling restart for the courts. In addition to Hennepin, district courts in McLeod, Olmsted, Ramsey and Scott counties also were allowed to begin felony criminal trials in the pilot program.
No other criminal trials can occur before July 6. Civil trials can’t begin until Sept. 1.