A Benton County courtroom Nov. 27, 2020. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
BENTONVILLE — The spread of covid-19 caused Benton County’s circuit judges to suspend jury trials for the next few weeks.
Benton County Circuit Judge Tom Smith, the administrative judge for the county’s seven circuit judges, signed an order Thursday suspending jury trials until Feb. 7.
The judges met and looked at their jury trials set for the next few weeks and felt it was appropriate to halt trials, Smith said.
He said the decision was a result of the rise in covid-19 numbers and Benton County being among the top three counties in the state in the spread of the virus.
Arkansas reported a record 12,990 new cases of covid-19 Thursday. Benton and Washington counties reported a record 2,399 new cases, according to the Arkansas Department of Health.
“We felt it was safer for jurors, lawyers, parties and staff to suspend our jury trials,” Smith said. “We are hopeful that there will be a quick downturn in the spike of the virus.”
Judges are pleased with the people willing to serve on juries, and there was no issue in people reporting for jury duty last year when summoned, Smith said.
Smith said many people coming to the Benton County Courthouse have been told to be there, whether they’ve been called for jury duty or are involved in a case.
“We tell you to be there,” he said. “You don’t have a choice. It’s not your decision.”
Washington County Circuit Judge Joanna Taylor said things were business as usual, but they are being careful and mindful of covid-19.
Benton County Circuit Judge Brad Karren informed attorneys Wednesday during court judges decided to suspend jury trials. The Arkansas Supreme Court left the decision concerning jury trials to the judges, Karren said.
He said having jury trials is a public safety issue, and it’s possible a mistrial could be granted if a juror or witness contracts the virus during the trial.
“We understand the need for them to close the trials,” said Jay Saxton, Benton County’s chief public defender. “However, it is never good news to postpone trials.”
Saxton said his office represents 12 clients in cases that were scheduled for trials in the next few weeks.
Benton County Prosecuting Attorney Nathan Smith said he hopes there’ll be no need to suspend trials past Feb. 7 so they can continue working to clear crowded dockets.
“I understand the concern the judges have in potentially exposing jurors to covid and also running the risk of a mistrial if one juror tested positive during a trial,” he said.
Smith said the ability to have jury trials incentivizes defendants to take plea offers.
“That’s why I hope we don’t have to pause them for long,” he said.
Smith said the prosecutor’s office has 31 cases set for trial for that period, but only a few of them were likely to have possibly been tried.