In The Courts Recent News

Grand Juries to Resume Work Statewide

A Supreme Court Order issued on October 8, 2020 provides a plan for the statewide return of grand juries, ending a delay that has affected thousands of defendants held in custody since the start of the Covid-19 health crisis.

The order also allows defendants detained more than 90 days to promptly receive discovery material from prosecutors and it ends pre-indictment excludable time in phases, prioritizing those defendants who have been detained the longest. The first phase ends excludable time on Jan. 15 for cases involving nearly 600 defendants who were detained prior to March 16.

While prosecutors typically have 90 days to bring a case to a grand jury, certain delays stop the clock and qualify as “excludable time.”

Defendants have accrued more than 200 days of excludable time since in-person grand jury selections were suspended in March due to Covid-19.

There are currently more than 2,700 defendants in county jails whose
matters have not been brought to a grand jury.

“The number of unindicted detained defendants will continue to grow unless grand juries are established in all counties and enabled to perform their critical function effectively, efficiently, and consistent with public health requirements,” the Court wrote in its order.

Jurors in all counties have now been summoned for new grand jury selections.

The Supreme Court’s order provides options for prosecutors to seek indictment through both virtual and in-person sessions.

Virtual grand juries have been operating in Mercer and Bergen counties since June.

Under the order, each county must equip new panels with the technology and training needed to convene in a virtual format by Dec. 1. Prosecutors may then choose to present cases before grand juries.

Alternatively, counties may convene in-person grand juries in Judiciary locations in a manner consistent with public health recommendations. As an additional option, county prosecutors may submit a proposal to conduct grand jury sessions in an outside facility if a Judiciary location is not available.

Also under the order, the Court is provisionally adopting a new rule, modeled after the federal court system, that allows for hearings that would afford eligible defendants the right to cross-examine witnesses and present evidence while requiring the state to demonstrate probable cause and present witness testimony. The hearings would not be held if an indictment is returned.

The plan protects the rights of the thousands of defendants who are detained and awaiting appearance before a grand jury and provides the state the opportunity to prepare and present cases. It also enables the criminal justice system to move forward in a way that protects the health of jurors, attorneys, witnesses and court staff.

In The Courts Recent News

New Jersey Courts Set to Resume Jury Trials

New Jersey courts are set to resume jury trials after being suspended for more than six months because of Covid-19, under a Supreme Court Order dated September 17, 2020.

The first trial is scheduled to begin in Bergen County on Monday, Sept. 21 with virtual jury selection before Superior Court Judge Robert Vinci. Jury selection will be conducted using a hybrid approach. Voir dire questioning will primarily take place in a virtual format, with technology provided by the Judiciary as needed.

Follow-up questioning and the exercise of peremptory challenges will be conducted in person.

The trial will be conducted in a socially distanced courtroom.

“The decision to resume a limited number of jury trials is motivated by the ongoing restrictions of the rights of criminal defendants, including more than 2,500 defendants who have been indicted and are detained in jail awaiting trial, as well as the rights of victims of crime seeking access to the courts to complete a critical step in their recovery,” said the court in an Order signed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner. “In addition, the extended delay in the administration of civil justice, including more than 9,000 cases awaiting trial today, also compels the resumption of jury trials.”

More than 200 potential jurors will be questioned virtually over the first several days.

A smaller group of prospective jurors will appear at the Bergen County Courthouse in Hackensack on Monday, Sept. 28. New Jersey’s first socially distant, in-person jury trial is expected to begin that same week.

The preparation to return to jury trials already has resulted in the settlement of 10 criminal cases in Bergen County.

“Jury trials are the catalyst for resolving cases, both in criminal and civil matters. The availability of a judge and jury ready to hear a case prompts pleas in criminal matters and settlements in civil cases. In contrast, the unavailability of jury trials removes the impetus for case resolution and stalls the wheels of justice. Countless individuals are adversely affected as a result,” the Court said in its order.

Virtual jury selection is expected to start soon in Atlantic County the week of Sept. 28, Cumberland County the week of Oct. 5 and Mercer and Passaic counties the week of Oct. 19.

To the extent feasible, the first new jury trials will be straightforward criminal cases involving a single detained defendant.

The first several socially distanced inperson jury trials will be livestreamed to the public.

“For more than six months, the New Jersey courts have sustained court operations to the greatest extent possible without jury trials. During that time, public health authorities have confirmed that Covid-19 trends in New Jersey no longer require all residents to stay at home, and those same authorities have issued guidance for how businesses, schools, and other institutions including the courts can safely resume some level of in-person activity.

Guided by the public health experts and recognizing its duty to uphold the rule of law even when it is difficult to do so, the Court authorized the resumption of jury trials,” the Court said in its order.