MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – More than one in 10 Mobile County residents called to jury duty for next week have sought and received permission to be excused, according to court officials.

Mobile County Presiding Circuit Judge Michael Youngpeter told FOX10 News that that is a higher-than-usual rate, although he added he cannot say how many cited COVID-19. He told FOX10 News last week that he anticipated that.

“We’re figuring that there will be a higher percentage of people that will, you know, have to be excused for health reasons or other reasons,” he said.

Court officials are drawing from a larger pool because of uncertainty over how the novel coronavirus pandemic might affect participation. Youngpeter said the summonses break down like this: 102 were postponed; 57 have been excused; 12 failed to meet the qualification requirements and 23 could not be delivered because of bad addresses.

The judge said 174 have logged into the new juror website run by the Alabama Administrative Office of Courts.

New juror questions include:

  • “Have you recently tested positive for COVID-19?
  • “Are you experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or otherwise sick?”
  • “Have you been exposed to someone who has tested positive or who has symptoms?”
  • “Are you caring for someone who is positive or experiencing symptoms?”
  • “Are you afraid to be in a room with a large number of people?”

Those questions and the online screening system are part of a comprehensive plan to resume jury trials, which have been suspended since March because of the pandemic. Jurors will report to the Mobile Civic Center instead of Government Plaza in order to keep occupancy low in the courtrooms and hallways.

Once selected for a jury, jurors will hear the evidence form seats spread out in the gallery instead of in the jury box. Spectators will watch the proceedings on monitors in other courtrooms.

Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich has expressed concern that the pandemic might make it harder to find jurors – and make sure those jurors represent a cross-section of the community.

“If we can’t get juries down here to serve on jury duty, you know, the end result would be that judges will begin letting defendants out on bond, because they are entitled to a jury trial, and they are entitled to have a jury trial,” she told FOX10 News.

Youngpeter is confident about Monday, at least. He said he will need about 45 people to get a jury for the criminal trial, plus another 18 for the grand jury. As for future weeks, when the number of trials escalates, it remains for be seen.

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