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Critics Say Oregon Shouldn't Be Holding Jury Trials During Pandemic


A famous play and film called "12 Angry Men" depicts people arguing in an overheated jury room. They sit close together. They get in each other's faces. Henry Fonda's character finally talks the others into a not-guilty verdict. A 2020 remake could easily be called 12 anxious people because, after a break for the pandemic, jury trials are resuming in Oregon. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Conrad Wilson reports.

CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: Earlier this month, more than 120 potential jurors showed up at the Multnomah County Courthouse in downtown Portland - spaced 6 feet apart, court staff offered facemasks. They were summoned to the county's first trial in more than a month amid the coronavirus pandemic.


THOMAS RYAN: I want to assure you, as I know you were told this morning, most of you have masks.

WILSON: Inside a courtroom, Circuit Court Judge Thomas Ryan greeted a small group of potential jurors from a distance.


RYAN: If your masks rips or tears or you decide - you don't have one and you decide you want one, just let either of our court clerks know, and we have masks for you.

WILSON: Rather than sitting together in a jury box, the jurors were spread out around the courtroom - so were the attorneys and court staff. Across the state, courts have been reduced to only their essential functions under an order by Oregon's Supreme Court chief justice. In March, there were 81 jury trials in Oregon. By April, just one in the entire state. The number of trials is once again starting to grow, but the fact that they're happening at all is surprising for some.

PAULA HANNAFORD-AGOR: It is very unusual.

WILSON: Paula Hannaford-Agor is an expert on juries for the National Center for State Courts.

HANNAFORD-AGOR: To the best of my knowledge, Oregon has been the only state that I'm aware of that has been doing trials.

WILSON: Hannaford-Agor says, across the country, some of the orders limiting or halting court functions have begun to expire.

HANNAFORD-AGOR: There's probably no better way to spread the infection than putting anywhere from 50 to 300 people in a room together, sitting side by side for hours at a time.

WILSON: Oregon courts know about the risks, but the law here is less flexible than other states for in-custody defendants who want a speedy trial. There's no emergency provision for a delay beyond 180 days of a defendant's arrest.

CHERYL ALBRECHT: Now, if their trial does not go at 180 days, then what happens is they should be released. That's what the law says.

WILSON: Cheryl Albrecht is the chief criminal judge for Multnomah County. She says the law requires a trial - that's the way the legal system is designed to work.

ALBRECHT: People's rights during a pandemic continue.

JUSTIN BERNSTEIN: I think it is weird to be doing an in-person anything right now.

WILSON: Justin Bernstein is a professor at UCLA Law School, where he directs a trial law program.

BERNSTEIN: To the extent we're going to be doing any part of the justice system in person, it makes sense that it would be criminal jury trials.

WILSON: Bernstein says the justice system affords criminal defendants more structural protections than any other group of people, and he says it's critical for jurors to assess the credibility of witnesses in person. He says jurors to see witnesses' faces, and attorneys need to be able to see jurors' reaction to evidence.

Carl MacPherson is executive director of Metropolitan Public Defender, a nonprofit that represents clients in the Portland area. He argues the use of masks and social distancing in the courtroom could raise questions around the fairness of those trials.

CARL MACPHERSON: I just don't see this going away anytime soon. I feel as though we're going to be in this state for quite some time.

WILSON: As of now, Oregon lawmakers say they have no plans to change the state's speedy trial laws, meaning there will almost certainly be more trials in the weeks to come and thousands of more jurors called to courthouses to report for jury duty.

For NPR News, I'm Conrad Wilson in Portland.