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From Courtroom To Club: Massachusetts Is Getting Creative To Hold Safe Trials

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Jury trials are back in session. All but six states had put jury trials on hold for safety precautions during the pandemic. Now as they try to ramp up, poor ventilation and limits on social distancing in some of the country's aging courthouses are forcing states to get creative about where they are holding trials. In Massachusetts, they have started in an event hall. From member station WBUR, Deborah Becker reports.

DEBORAH BECKER, BYLINE: Except for the metal detectors, the lobby isn't dramatically altered at Lombardo's, a popular wedding and prom venue near Boston. Up a large, winding staircase, under a massive chandelier, just past the grand piano are ballrooms where people are not exactly celebrating.

UNIDENTIFIED BAILIFF: All rise, please. The jury is entering.

BECKER: Several court officers try to project the decorum of a courtroom.

UNIDENTIFIED BAILIFF: The court is now in session. You may be seated.

BECKER: Six-person jury trials recently began in alternative locations because many Massachusetts courthouses don't have pandemic-appropriate space and ventilation. Presiding Judge Mark Coven says this motor vehicle homicide case was a priority.

MARK COVEN: I think we've got to look at the seriousness of the crimes because they've been pending for some time. And there's obviously deaths involved, and people have a right to bring their cases to trial.

BECKER: Even with makeshift courtrooms, only a limited number of trials are being held to chip away at an estimated backlog of 3,700 cases that were put off because of the pandemic. Norfolk County District Attorney Mike Morrissey, whose office prosecuted this case, says with 20 murder trials pending in his county alone, something had to be done.

MIKE MORRISSEY: There's probably 220 people in the house of correction that are awaiting trial right now. Those are just the people that are locked up, and then there's hundreds of others of cases that we still have in the district court, and a lot of victims that are here looking for their day in court. And so it's important that we move ahead.

BECKER: In the repurposed ballroom, Judge Coven sits on a raised platform. The defense and prosecution are at tables facing the judge. The witness stand is a wooden podium in the middle of the room, facing jurors who sit on banquet chairs appropriately spaced apart. Everything is protected by plexiglass. Judge Coven says the venue works.

COVEN: Whether it's in this building or in a courthouse in Massachusetts, it was not much different, except for the environment and the chandelier.

BECKER: But there were some differences, says defense attorney Joseph Simons. He says there was a lot of preparation. And with speedy trial considerations largely exempted because of the pandemic, this case was put off for more than a year.

JOSEPH SIMONS: We've had a lot of clients who've just been waiting for their day in court, and the deadlines keep getting pushed back and pushed back. So it feels good. It feels like we're getting back on track.

BECKER: After deliberating for almost a day in a nearby ballroom, the jury decided.

UNIDENTIFIED JUDGE: Is he guilty or not guilty?

UNIDENTIFIED JUROR: Not guilty.

BECKER: At the not guilty verdict, the defendant reacted emotionally. Defense attorney Simons reached over the plexiglass to touch his client's shoulder. DA Morrissey says these trials help pave the way for more complicated cases and security for those incarcerated who will be held in an adjoining nightclub.

MORRISSEY: You get into the rhythm of picking a jury and how to handle a jury, how to segregate a jury, how to keep people safe. And then I assume that they'll be ready to deal with someone, you know, in a lockup situation within the coming week or two.

BECKER: Massachusetts signed leases to hold trials in seven satellite court locations, including hotels and a former movie theater. As to how much of a dent these might make in the backlog and whether there's a greater risk of appeals, well, as they say, the jury is still out.

For NPR News, I'm Deborah Becker in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELEANOR FRIEDBERGER SONG, "HE DIDN'T MENTION HIS MOTHER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.