Jury trials are suspended but the Alaska Court System is still issuing a reduced number of jury summons

Published: Dec. 21, 2020 at 6:55 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Jury trials are suspended into the new year, but some Alaskans are still receiving jury summons.

The Alaska Court System has had to adapt to stay open during the pandemic. As a primarily in-person process, this has included transitioning to utilizing phone and video conferencing for hearings, and the suspension of in-person jury trials.

On Nov. 25, an order from Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger extended the suspension of criminal jury trials through March 15, 2021. In-person grand jury proceedings are suspended through Feb. 1, 2021, and in-person civil jury trials are suspended through Sept. 7, 2021, according to the order.

However, Alaskans still might find themselves called upon to participate in jury duty.

Between March 1 and the end of November, 49 jury trials were held statewide, according to Anchorage Superior Court Judge Catherine Easter.

“There still is the possibility that we may need jurors for a presumptive death case,” she said. “We’ve actually done at least six of those throughout the state. Those are cases that can be done via video conference.”

Easter said the courts must also be prepared for the unexpected. Chief Justice Bolger’s order states that judges may allow an in-person jury trial or in-person grand jury in exceptional circumstances and lists 11 factors that could play into such a decision.

“That is probably less likely in a criminal case,” Easter said. “The exceptional circumstance would be a decision that would be made to bring jurors into the courtroom. If we determined it was an exceptional circumstance, that would be an in-person jury, it would not be a jury conducted via video conference.”

In order to have a criminal jury trial by video conference, both parties would have to agree to that arrangement — an even less likely scenario.

“That being said, we want to be prepared in the event that we do have a jury trial ready to go, we want to make sure that we have jurors available to sit on those cases,” Easter said.

According to the Alaska courts website, the jury selection process has been modified for public health reasons too. Jurors may be selected over Zoom or in smaller in-person events that allow for social distancing.

Easter encouraged anyone who needs assistance navigating the system to reach out.

“If any person who’s been summoned to court has any questions or concerns, I encourage them to reach out to their local court to ask those questions, talk about those concerns, or they can also send a message via that jury dashboard to their local court and those questions and concerns will be answered and addressed,” Easter said.

Easter said it’s also important to note that most cases are not resolved by jury trial. She said between March 1 and the end of November, the courts across the state had held more than 200,000 hearings and approximately 4,000 non-jury trials.

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