In-person jury trials are scheduled to resume in Oneida County Court next week, starting with a drug possession trial out of Utica.
County Commissioner of Jurors James P. Goodman said the state Unified Court System is slowly reopening jury trials across the state following six months of pandemic lockdown. Officials said Suffolk, Schuyler and Erie counties in western New York were the first to restart trials earlier this month as part of a “pilot” program to guarantee safety at all stages of the process.
Goodman said Oneida County will resume trials starting on Monday. Judge Michael L. Dwyer will preside over the criminal trial of Harry Brown, who is facing drug possession charges out of Utica from July 2019, court officials stated.
To ensure social distancing inside the courtroom, officials said the usual jury box will only seat about seven jurors, while the remainder of the panel will be seated on the benches where the public typically sits. Officials said the courtroom will maintain about four or five seats for the public in the courtroom, while a television has been set up in an overflow room to broadcast the proceedings for anyone else.
The Unified Court System canceled and postponed all trials in mid-March at the start of the pandemic lockdown.
Meanwhile, Goodman said grand jury proceedings have been going “smoothly” since July. He said they have seated three different grand juries since then and they have had no problems in maintaining health and social-distancing.
“The jurors have followed all of the restrictions,” Goodman said about the grand juries held so far.
“That’s making us feel very good about how this process is going.”
Grand juries are separate from trial juries in that grand juries decide whether or not there is enough evidence to file an indictment against a person. An indictment is a formal charge made against a person that kicks off County Court proceedings. An indictment does not establish guilt or remove the presumption of innocence. Grand jury proceedings are conducted at the District Attorney’s Office, in a room that has also been spaced out to allow for social distancing.
The large, ceremonial courtroom at the Oneida County courthouse is used for the more populated jury selection process.