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Jury trials in criminal cases resume in Cook County

With the coronavirus still at the forefront of many people’s minds, potential jurors trickled into the Leighton Criminal Courthouse Monday morning with a mix of anxiousness and dread.

The Leighton Criminal Courthouse.
Jury selection got underway Monday at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse for the first time in a year.
Sun-Times file

Jury trials resumed in Cook County Circuit Court on Monday more than a year after the courts shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.

With thoughts of COVID-19 still at the forefront of many people’s minds, potential jurors trickled into the Leighton Criminal Courthouse Monday morning with a mix of anxiousness and dread.

“Did I want to come? No. But did I have to come? Yes,” Suzana Ristov, 39, said before entering the courthouse. “That’s kind of where I’m at.”

Cathy Kattner said she brought extra masks, hand sanitizers and wipes with her to the courtroom “just to keep safe.”

“I’m very nervous about being here,” said Kattner, a preschool teacher at St. Benedict in North Center.

Cathy Kattner, a preschool teacher at St. Benedict Preparatory School, said she was worried about the coronavirus after being summoned to the jury duty.
Madeline Kenney/Chicago Sun-Times

Some didn’t realize they were among the first jury pool since March 2020.

“I was surprised to hear that they weren’t open already. I mean, it’s been a long time for somebody that wants a jury trial to not be able to get one,” potential juror Kathryn Huth said.

Others didn’t know what to expect.

“Being the first day back, I don’t know if they’re anxious to get trials moving or they’re going to have some struggles getting restarted,” said Terry Fischer, of Streamwood, who was summoned.

Last month, Chief Judge Timothy Evans’ office announced several new measures and slight changes to the jury selection process in an attempt to limit the spread of the virus within the courthouses.

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

On Monday, everyone entering the courthouse was required to wear masks and had to undergo a temperature check and answer health questions at the door. There were also stickers on the floors encouraging proper social distancing.

Six-hundred summonses were sent out, but only 56 people showed up to be potential jurors for a 2019 residential burglary case, which is set to be the first jury trial heard since last March, the chief judge’s spokesperson said.

Before the selection process started, Judge Arthur Hill said all the potential jurors were required to wear clear face masks provided by the court.

“From what I read on the paper, it seemed like they were to be prepared,” said potential juror Bob Moore, of Edgewater, who recently received his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. “It seems they’re on top of everything. … I think we’re in a part of the pandemic [where] I’m feeling at least comfortable as long as we’re distanced in there.”

With jurors standing on the opposite side of the room, Hill had trouble hearing some through a plexiglass window and masks. Multiple times, he told them to speak louder.

Asked about schedule conflicts, several potential jurors raised issues, including one woman who said she’s getting a COVID-19 vaccination Thursday.

A lawyer for the defendant asked the pool of potential jurors two questions: Whether they would feel rushed to come to a verdict because of concerns about the virus? And whether they could follow all the safety precautions set in place for the entirety of the trial?

Several jurors, who were not visible on the courthouse’s livestream raised their hands, including one, who appeared to have said they weren’t comfortable because a relative had the virus.

Once 14 jurors and two alternatives were selected, Hill asked everyone who will be in the courtroom Tuesday for Glenn Whitmore’s trial to wear clear masks. He also said witnesses will sit behind a plexiglass shield at the stand, though there could be adjustments made on the fly.

“We’re trying this for the first time folks,” Hill said after the conclusion of jury selection.