Virginia Supreme Court Approves Loudoun’s Jury Trial Return

The Virginia Supreme Court has approved the Loudoun County Circuit Court’s plan to resume jury trials, but not until at least the end of next month.

On Oct. 15, Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons notified Loudoun County Circuit Court Chief Judge Douglas L. Fleming, Jr. that the county’s plan was approved and effective immediately—although Loudoun’s plan stipulates that the first jury trial won’t begin until at least 45 days after the Supreme Court’s approval, Monday, Nov. 30.

On March 16, Lemons signed into effect a Declaration of Judicial Emergency that required all civil, traffic and criminal matters, including jury trials, to be continued in an effort to keep as many people as possible out of courthouses to help slow the spread of COVID-19. On Oct. 19, Lemons extended that order for a 12th time, holding it in effect through Nov. 22.

To proceed with jury trials, the Loudoun County Circuit Court on Aug. 17 submitted a plan to the state Supreme Court outlining the protocols it will set in place to safely resume jury trials.

The 45-day implementation period will allow court personnel to complete modifications to the courtrooms, ensure sufficient inventory of cleaning materials and personal protective equipment, issue juror summons, and allow prospective jurors a reasonable period of time to request the court for jury deferral, and time for the court to review such requests.

Loudoun’s plan calls for the court to issue jury summonses to at least 300% of the number of jurors who would be needed to report on the trial date. That’s because the court anticipates it will defer a substantial number of summoned jurors based on its approved COVID-19 questionnaire, which includes questions posed to determine those who are at increased risks of COVID-19 or have childcare responsibilities.

Loudoun’s plan for a jury return places the highest priority on resuming felony and misdemeanor cases involving incarcerated defendants who have been in jail for the longest period of time. The second-highest priority is on felony cases involving non-incarcerated defendants. The third-highest priority is on misdemeanor cases involving non-incarcerated defendants. Lastly, the Loudoun Circuit Court will hear civil trials.

Loudoun’s plan predominantly outlines requirements for all people involved in the jury process to maintain social distancing and wear face masks; and for the court to remotely review jury deferral requests from those who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 and to commence advanced cleaning of courtrooms before and during jury trials.

The plan calls for only two courtrooms to be used for jury trials. Courtroom 2A—the Loudoun Circuit Court’s largest courtroom—will be used for 14-person jury trials for felony criminal cases. Courtroom 2D—one of three identical courtrooms used for Circuit Court hearings—will be used for eight-person jury trials for criminal misdemeanor and civil cases.

Courtroom 2B or 2C will be used as a jury recess/deliberation room for 14-person felony jury trials. Courtroom 2E, which is smaller than the other courtrooms, will be used as a jury recess/deliberation room for eight-person criminal misdemeanor and civil juries.

Courtroom 2B or 2C will be used as a remote viewing area for the general public and press via a closed-circuit broadcast.

Initially, only one trial will be permitted to proceed at a time.

There are several high-profile cases in Loudoun awaiting jury trials. Perhaps the most anticipated centers on the case of Brian Welsh, who is charged with two counts of first-degree murder in connection with the January 2018 shooting deaths of Mala Manwani and her adult son, Rishi Manwani, at their Aldie home. That trial was scheduled to run from Oct. 5 to Nov. 6. It is now on the Oct. 29 docket for review.

According to Kristi Wright, the Virginia Supreme Court’s Executive Secretary Office’s public relations director, all 31 of Virginia’s circuits—which encompasses 122 individual circuit courts—have submitted plans seeking returns to jury trials.

Of those plans, a panel of the Virginia Supreme Court had approved 19 as of Tuesday morning—for the Albemarle, Alexandria, Alleghany, Charlottesville, Chesterfield, Colonial Heights, Fairfax, Fluvanna, Fredericksburg, Henrico, Loudoun, Norfolk, Prince William, Richmond, Roanoke City, Roanoke County, Salem, Stafford and Virginia Beach Circuit Courts.

pszabo@loudounnow.com

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