Court comeback: Limited jury trials resume next month

Staff Writer
Published: 9/21/2020 7:37:03 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Jury trials in the state’s courts will start to resume on a limited basis in October after being on hold for months because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but a top local prosecutor said Friday that it’s yet to be determined which cases will be heard first and where.

The state’s Supreme Judicial Court issued an order Thursday announcing that Phase 1 of the state’s gradual resumption of jury trials will start beginning on Oct. 23. But according to First Assistant Northwestern District Attorney Steven Gagne, as of Friday his office had not yet received any official word from state judicial officials on which courthouses in Hampshire and Franklin counties will be allowed to conduct jury trials, or which cases will be heard.

“I wish we had more information,” Gagne said. “But I think everyone is just waiting to hear word from the Trial Court.”

According to the SJC order, Phase 1 will limit trials to juries of six, with alternates, that will be conducted in a small number of locations with no more than one trial at a time conducted in each location.

The order also says that the cases that will be tried during this initial phase — as well as locations of these trials — will ultimately be determined by the chief justice of each specific Trial Court department in consultation with the Trial Court’s chief justice. Phase 1 will last until at least February, the order says.

“Scheduling trials will be a collaborative process involving court leaders in each location and department, bar leaders, and counsel in each case,” the order reads.

Phase 1 of the state’s resumption in jury trials generally follows recommendations laid out by the Jury Management Advisory Committee in July. Among other recommendations, the committee called for civil cases or criminal cases involving minor offenses to be heard during Phase 1.

Gagne said he hopes that determinations of which cases will be tried during this phase will be made in consultation with the DA’s office as well as the defense bar. From a prosecution perspective, Gagne said he would like the priorities to be cases of serious violence or cases where a defendant is in custody.

“I don’t think it’s going to be completely up to the DA’s office which cases get tried or where they get tried,” Gagne said. “But we’re as anxious as anybody to resume trials and get these cases moving again.”

Gagne said that out of all of the courthouses located in municipalities within the DA office’s jurisdiction — Northampton, Orange, Belchertown and Greenfield — he has heard rumblings that Greenfield may be a place where jury trials are held.

The SJC order also says that criminal cases tried in Superior Court that would typically have a jury of 12 can be tried during Phase 1 with a jury of six, though only with the defendant’s consent. Gagne said he would be surprised to see a defendant agree to a six-person jury trial in Superior Court during Phase 1.

“The reason being, some would say it might be easier to convince six people rather than 12 of a person’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” Gagne said. He said he expects to learn more about Phase 1 within the next few weeks.

New grand juries were also impaneled earlier this month in both Hampshire and Franklin counties, Gagne said.

“We have cases lined up for them to hear between now and early December,” Gagne said. “We have quite a backlog of cases that we otherwise would have indicted between March and now.”

Clerks’, registers’ and recorders’ offices will continue to be open to the public but will conduct business virtually as much as possible, according to a statement released by state judicial officials.

Michael Connors can be reached at

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