Big changes in courtrooms as criminal trials resume in Dorchester County

Updated: Sep. 29, 2020 at 3:30 PM EDT
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DORCHESTER COUNTY, S.C. (WCSC) - For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic hit our state, criminal trials are resuming in Dorchester County. However the rules and look inside the courtroom have changed drastically.

Circuit Judge Maite Murphy wore a mask when she entered the courtroom Tuesday to preside over Dorchester County’s first criminal trial in several months.

James Almond is accused of breaking into a home in Summerville in May of last year and stealing Items worth thousands of dollars.

Before jury selection began, Judge Murphy made it clear the courtroom will be run differently during the pandemic.

“The process that we will follow this morning is obviously different from what we have done in the past,” Murphy said.

The changes inside the courtroom are obvious. Everyone is required to wear a mask. That includes the attorneys, the defendant and the jurors. The attorneys sit at tables that are spaced apart for proper social distancing.

Plastic partitions protect the court clerk, the court reporter and the judge from possible exposure to the COVID-19 virus.

A makeshift witness stand is setup in a corner of the courtroom. It’s replacing the traditional one that’s next to the judge’s bench.

And the jurors won’t sit in the jury box. Instead they will listen to testimony from where the public usually sits in order to keep them far apart.

During the selection process, prospective jurors were separated to allow proper social distancing. Half of them were seated in the courtroom. The other half were in a separate room downstairs.

The judge communicated with the ones downstairs through a camera and a video monitor. Lawyers watched on their computers and listened on headsets

“I hope you can see me downstairs in our jury assembly room. Maybe just wave to make sure you can see me,” Judge Murphy asked.

One prospective juror asked to get a closer look at defendant James Almond. The judge asked him to take off his mask and look at the camera.

“Mr. Almond if you will please stand. Can you see him downstairs?” the judge asked.

Lawyers on both sides were allowed to remove their masks for opening statements.

Officials say so far this first trial has passed the test and they are ready for more cases in courtrooms.

Charieston County is planning to resume criminal trials in November. Berkeley County officials do not know when criminal trials will resume there.

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