Chicago’s federal court again resumes jury trials after five-month pause

The federal court held jury trials in Chicago last summer, but a rise in coronavirus cases prompted the chief judge to put them back on hold in late October.

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Dirksen Federal Courthouse

Sun-Times file

Shortly before jury trials resumed Tuesday in Chicago’s federal court for the second time since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, a sound filled a downtown courtroom that may become increasingly familiar as the wheels of justice lurch back into gear. 

The snap and rattle of a tape measure. 

U.S. District Court Clerk Thomas Bruton, joined by U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall, could be seen measuring the distance between seats in a 25th-floor courtroom where potential jurors would find a chair about 90 minutes later. 

A five-month jury trial suspension ended this week in federal court, clearing the way for judges to slowly begin clearing a backlog of cases that has built up in the year since the coronavirus pandemic took hold. 

But safety protocols mean the work could be slow going. For example, Kendall pointed out last month that only one jury trial is allowed to take place on each floor of the building. 

The first coronavirus-era trial held at the Loop courthouse took place in August, when court officials tested new protocols that included masks, hand sanitizer and social distancing. Rather than sitting in the traditional jury box, jurors were spread throughout half of the courtroom, where public benches had once been. Jurors were also given a separate courtroom for deliberations.

When that trial ended, jurors praised the new protocols. However, a rise in coronavirus cases led U.S. District Chief Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer to again suspend jury trials in late October.

The trial that began Tuesday stemmed from a lawsuit filed by Omar Williams, who was acquitted of a 2011 murder and attempted murder. He then sued, claiming he had been set up by police and prosecutors, and that he wrongly spent more than five years in jail.

In addition to resuming the protocols first tested in 2020, Kendall wrote last month that potential jurors would need to participate in COVID-19 testing at the courthouse. Selected jurors will be tested twice a week. Any witness whose testimony lasts more than two days will also need to be tested. The judge said she would select eight jurors, not 12, because “the court cannot accommodate a twelve person civil jury at this time.”

When the first group of potential jurors took their seats in the courtroom Tuesday, Kendall told them, “I’m so proud of my citizens here, who are coming back to carry on with the wheels of justice that we have been working through for the last year.”

Kendall told them she had presided over other jury trials since the pandemic began. And she noted that, amid all the cases that have gone to trial since then, “no juror has gotten sick.”

“That should give you some comfort,” Kendall said.

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