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Surry may hold jury trials in Hopewell

Surry County Circuit Court jury trials may convene in the Beacon Theater in Hopewell for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic in order to maintain social distancing, the Virginia Supreme Court recently decided.

Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons approved the temporary arrangements because no court facilities in the circuit can accommodate a public jury trial while maintaining social distancing health and safety measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus, Lemons wrote in a Dec. 16 memo to 6th Circuit Chief Judge William E. Tomko III.

A mock trial was staged this summer to evaluate the logistics of holding trials in the Beacon, which is a nearly 100-year-old, three-story, vaudeville-era venue. Surry is part of the state’s 6th judicial circuit, which includes courts in the counties of Prince George, Sussex, Greensville and Brunswick, and the cities of Hopewell and Emporia.

Greensville, Brunswick, Sussex and Emporia courts are authorized to convene jury trials in the Golden Leaf Commons in Emporia. It’s a 9,000-square-foot, multipurpose venue that typically hosts banquets and trade shows, according to the facility’s website.

“No jury trials have been held in Surry County during the pandemic, due to the inability to maintain social distancing with that many people in our courtroom,” Derek A. Davis, Surry’s commonwealth’s attorney, confirmed in an email. However, Surry courts have remained open throughout the pandemic operating under CDC and state Supreme Court guidelines.

“I do not know the exact number of cases heard during the pandemic, but we have been operating with smaller dockets to remain compliant with CDC guidelines,” Davis continued. “There is some backlog in bench trials due to reduced docket size, but it is not significant. We will be able to begin scheduling jury trials after Jan. 8, and I would expect to start seeing our first trials in early February.”

If jury trials are convened in the Beacon Theater, a 37-page plan filed with the court shows that the jurors will sit about four seats apart in a section of the venue’s seating area, while the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney and witnesses will sit at tables on the stage.

Lemons’ Dec. 16 memorandum of understanding allowed jury trials to begin immediately. When they do, the first trials could share the Beacon with Nightrain, a Guns N’ Roses tribute band, scheduled to perform on Feb. 20, and Max Weinberg’s Jukebox, scheduled for March 27, according to the venue’s website. The theater has been operating with reduced spectator capacity for shows.

Lemons said presiding judges will “have the authority to make decisions that must be made to effectuate a trial.”

Isle of Wight and Southampton counties, along with the cities of Suffolk and Franklin, are part of the 5th judicial circuit. In a Nov. 2 order, the circuit’s Chief Judge, Carl E. Eason Jr., amended an earlier order governing the court’s operations. Fifth Circuit courts will continue to schedule criminal matters that are deemed emergencies, such as arrangements, bail hearings and sentencing. Those matters will be heard by video if possible.

Georgette Phillips, Isle of Wight’s commonwealth’s attorney, said Eason’s plan did not include the use of another facility for jury trials. “All of Isle of Wight’s courts are open,” Phillips said, adding that “there are limitations as to what can be heard that have been imposed by court orders.

According to the Nov. 2 order, scheduling of criminal trials will proceed “after consideration of a written motion” to place the matter on the court’s docket. The motion must specifically state the anticipated length of the trial, the total number of witnesses and if the defendant is in custody and whether they agree to appear by video.

Virginia’s Supreme Court has allowed 52 circuit courts statewide to resume jury trials after the plans they submitted on how to safely proceed were approved by a panel of three justices.