Manhattan Courthouses Adapt to COVID So Trials Can Return

NEW YORK — The two big, busy federal courthouses in Manhattan took the adage that justice delayed is justice denied to heart when the coronavirus hit, creating a pandemic-safe environment for jurors that could be a blueprint for courts elsewhere

After months of inactivity, they are holding trials again with a safety system that includes an air-filtered plexiglass both for witnesses, an audio system that lets socially distant lawyers exchange whispers without putting their heads together and protocols to ensure that no document changes hands without being sprayed with disinfectant.

More than 100 trials are already scheduled this year, and a month after jury trials resumed following a post-Thanksgiving halt, there has been no traceable spread of COVID-19 at the courthouse, according to its chief administrator, District Executive Edward Friedland.

That's important because some of the nation's oldest judges are among the 70 or so who sit in the two courthouses. One, 93-year-old Louis L. Stanton, has come into work almost every day since the pandemic arrived.

"We wanted to protect them. But also, you know, the justice system has to move forward," Friedland said.

When trials initially halted a year ago as the pandemic hit the city, Chief Judge Colleen McMahon formed a committee to explore how to safely resume. Friedland tapped the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for expertise. Soon, an epidemiologist was on board, along with an air flow expert.

A CDC expert who had designed airtight hospital bed units with HEPA filters helped develop plexiglass booths where witnesses safely sit maskless, preserving a defendant's right to confront an accuser.

McMahon credited the extensive anti-COVID efforts for allowing incarcerated defendants to go to trial first.

Only nine jury trials were conducted in the fall, but there have been seven since mid-February, including four underway this week. Normally, there'd be dozens annually.

The simultaneous trials are in contrast with Brooklyn federal court, where Federal Defenders Attorney-in-Charge Deirdre von Dornum said judges were cautiously scheduling three trials in April — none overlapping — to prevent multiple juries in the courthouse at once.

"It would be better for the clients to have more trials sooner, since the postponements obviously harm people's trial rights, but on the other hand, a jury scared of contracting COVID is unlikely to be engaging fully with the concept of reasonable doubt!" she wrote in an email.

At the Manhattan courthouses, some jurors are rescheduled if they don't want to attend  a trial in person.

"It was a gamble as to whether we were going to have people answer the call or not," McMahon said, but she said there have been enough people to ensure diverse juries.

Six of 40 courtrooms in a courthouse that opened in the mid-1990s have been reconfigured, as have two others across the street in an 85-year-old courthouse listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. The complex has a storied history of cases over the last century: the espionage trials of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the prosecution of  Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff and claims arising from the Titanic's sinking and the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Jurors fill nearly half of each courtroom, spaced apart in an elevated section. Each receive a packet with hand sanitizer, masks, gloves, disinfectant wipes and a forehead thermometer. Double masks are mandatory. Some courtrooms were recast into giant spaces for jurors to congregate 6 feet (2 meters) apart for discussions, 12 feet (4 meters) for meals. 

When a juror recently tested positive for the coronavirus, no other jurors got sick.

In court, lawyers at long tables whisper into special phones, their voices amplified for their team by a technology borrowed from roadies communicating backstage at long-ago rock concerts. Microphone covers are replaced with each speaker.

"We think we've done a lot of things here that are groundbreaking in terms of how to conduct a trial during COVID, but certainly we've spoken to our colleagues in other courts and learned from them as well," Friedland said.

About $1 million was spent on the changes. To explain safety measures, Friedland made a rare exception to rules banning photos.

"You can't go anywhere in this courthouse now without seeing a sign. The one thing we're worried about is complacency — that people have COVID fatigue," Friedland said. "Especially jurors if they're here for weeks. Your mask is not worn the right way. You forget to sanitize your hands."

U.S. District Judge P. Kevin Castel, who presided over the first two pandemic-era jury trials in the fall, said protocols do become routine, eventually.

"Once everybody gets into the rhythm and the flow, after the first day or day and a half it feels very much … like any other trial," Castel said. 

There are glitches.

Last week, a trial was delayed when a juror needed a COVID test because someone in the school where her husband works tested positive. Then, a prosecutor said somebody had illegally recorded proceedings from a telephone feed and posted it on the internet.

Castel eventually cut off the public feed, as several spectators could fit in the courtroom while others could observe video in a nearby overflow courtroom.

He said some changes may outlive the pandemic, particularly for civil proceedings.

"You might see more call-in lines where the public can listen to a trial. There may be more conferences that are done either by video or by audio," he said.

It's a future everyone longs for, he said.

"I don't know of any rational person who would find this better," Castel said. "You want the human interaction. It's a dynamic that is important to us as humans."


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