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Jury trials in criminal cases expected to resume in Cook County next month

The first jury trials are expected to be held March 22 at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse, according to Chief Judge Timothy Evans’ office.

NBC Nightly New anchor Lester Holt appears in a juror orientation video for the Cook County Circuit Court.
NBC Nightly New anchor Lester Holt appears in a juror orientation video for the Cook County Circuit Court.
Screenshot from YouTube

Criminal jury trials will resume in Cook County next month, roughly a year after the coronavirus pandemic suspended most in-person courthouse activity.

It has not yet been determined when jury trials will resume in civil cases.

But the first jury trials in criminal cases are expected to be held at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse on March 22 and potential jurors can expect to receive their summons in the mail this week, Chief Judge Timothy Evans’ office announced Wednesday.

Potential jurors will only be excused if they can present “extreme hardship,” the chief judge’s office said, although the age for deferment from jury duty has been lowered from 70 to 65.

Everyone entering courthouses will be required to wear masks, submit to a temperature check and answer health questions. Jurors will also be more spread out than they were previously, possibly seated in the assembly room for hearings instead of the traditional jury box.

Multiple courtrooms will also be used for a single trial to promote social distancing: One courtroom for the trial, another for deliberations and a third where the public can watch a live-streamed broadcast of the trial.

Chief Cook County Judge Timothy Evans.
Chief Cook County Judge Timothy Evans.
Rich Hein / Sun-Times file

Face masks, gloves and hand sanitizer will also be provided at the courthouses for free.

“Due to the coronavirus pandemic, we have established procedures to safeguard the health of all persons in the courthouses,” Evans said in a news release. “Every reasonable precaution will be taken to protect the health and safety of the jurors, parties, witnesses, lawyers and court staff during jury selection and the trial to follow.”

To freshen up their skills, jurors will be told to watch the court’s dated orientation video on their own. The video — narrated by Lester Holt, a former anchor with WBBM-TV who is currently anchoring NBC Nightly News — was previously shown to jurors in a large room.

Since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, bond and status hearings have been conducted over a videoconferencing service and streamed live on YouTube.

Judges, attorneys and defendants have expressed frustration for the delays the pandemic has caused in cases, as well as the difficultly of conducting hearings remotely, where technical glitches were frequent.

Through the months, judges also became more restrictive of who could join the videoconferencing hearings, particularly after a live-streamed video from a bond hearing was recorded and uploaded to a hip hop website over the summer.

At times, judges have also had to remind people appearing in court to wear appropriate clothing, take off their hats and stop smoking — as if they were physically in court.