St. Louis Circuit Court Moves to Phase Two COVID-19 Operations, Sets Jury Trial March 22

Presiding Judge Michael Stelzer of the St. Louis Circuit Court ordered today that the Court will transition immediately to Phase Two Operations from Phase One, as defined in the Operational Directives from the Supreme Court of Missouri last May.

Phase Two allows for jury trials that can “safely be conducted in compliance with social distancing protocols and occupancy rate limitations applicable to the local community.” Judge Stelzer noted that he had consulted with Dr. Fredrick Echols, director of the St. Louis Department of Health, in deciding to move to Phase Two.

Accordingly, the Court has scheduled its first jury trial in more than a year, when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit Missouri.

The trial will be in Case #1822-CR04166-01, State v. Jerome Pimpin Jones, who is charged with first-degree murder, first-degree assault, unlawful use of a weapon by firing from a moving vehicle, and three counts of armed criminal action. The charges stem from an incident Nov. 4, 2018.

Among them:

  • The trial courtroom will be open only to jurors and parties to the case.
  • Other observers may view a video feed of the trial from the Ceremonial Courtroom on the fourth floor of the Civil Courts Building. Other viewing rooms may be added as necessary.
  • Jury selection will be conducted in the Jury Assembly Room of the Civil Courts Building rather than in the trial courtroom to allow for safe social distancing.
  • Jury deliberation will be in a designated partner courtroom instead of around a table in a small room.
  • The Court will closely supervise cleaning and disinfecting spaces between each trial session. Deputies and other safety monitors will enforce rules for masking, social distancing, elevator and restroom occupancy and other pandemic-related precautions. Public spaces and high-touch areas will be cleaned frequently.

The court is taking numerous steps to protect the health and safety of prospective jurors and the eventual panel of 12 jurors and two alternates, as well as all parties and observers of this trial and others to follow while the Court remains in Phase Two.

Judge Stelzer said, “We are encouraged to get this area of the judicial process moving again but are proceeding with caution. Advancing through operational phases depends on all of us taking responsibility for our health and that of others as we work to become COVID-free.”

St. Louis Circuit Court Innovates To Overcome Pandemic Setback

As with most institutions, the St. Louis Circuit Court experienced service setbacks and unexpected challenges with the sudden onset of the COVID-19 pandemic nearly a year ago. But unlike some other institutions that were already driven by technology and innovation, the Court had to build many of its solutions from scratch.

Two areas of the Court exemplify the rapid response and adaptation that have kept proceedings largely on track: the Juvenile Court and the Treatment Courts.

Treatment Courts are special dockets in the court system designed to offer substance abuse treatment, combined with supervision and judicial oversight to provide non-violent substance abusers the tools they need to change their lives and avoid incarceration. They involve highly collaborative efforts of the Court, Circuit Attorney, Department of Corrections Probation and Parole, defense lawyers, community treatment providers, Sheriff’s Department, Children’s Division, community workers and volunteers. The original Drug Court for adults in the criminal justice system, has branched into separate treatment programs for parents with addiction issues, and veteran’s faced with criminal charges.

The explosive impact of the pandemic initially was a shock to the homegrown Treatment Court system. At the same time, the criminal justice system’s need for alternatives to incarceration spiked as officials sought to avoid having the virus spread in detention facilities.

Rochelle M. Woodiest, Treatment Courts commissioner, said, “We are back on track. Through it all, we have continued to graduate participants who successfully complete the program, although the ceremonies are virtual now.”

She said the Courts quickly developed a system of virtual check-in hearings, notifying defense attorneys and prosecutors of the time and internet links that Court officers need to speak with participants.

The Courts also make use of WebEx video for recovery meetings, and participants can meet with their counselors by video or over the phone. Its screenings for admission to the program are held virtually and involve interviews to determine a candidate’s potential to succeed.

To be considered for admission, defendants ask a judge at a bond or detention hearing. Commissioner Woodiest noted that overall admissions had declined somewhat because fewer cases overall are moving through the system during the pandemic.

Some aspects of Treatment Courts still rely on in-person interactions. Participants are still required to undergo random urine checks and meet regularly with their probation officers. The officers often conduct these meetings in the field, meeting defendants at neutral sites or at their offices, but they also conduct home visits.

And after establishing COVID safety protocols, the Courts have resumed working with various community agencies who have residential beds available for addiction treatment.

In the Juvenile Court, timeliness for many processes is dictated by state regulations.

Steven Ohmer, chief judge of the Juvenile and Family Court, said, “We have had brief interruptions related to the pandemic, especially in the early days. But we got back on schedule quickly once we adopted new technologies.”

Each of three original courtrooms in the Juvenile and Family Courts facility at 920 N. Vandeventer Ave. have been set up for virtual hearings.

“For hearings that must be in-person, we adapted another space for a fourth courtroom big enough for social distancing,” Judge Ohmer said.

In addition, the Court set up a small room equipped for WebEx as a way for people to attend video hearings if a courtroom is too full for social distancing. “If people lack a home computer or smartphone, they may come to our facility and use our WebEx equipped room,” he said.

While the pandemic has brought many new variables, the demand for virtual capabilities has remained high. “We have approximately 200 child protection hearings per month in cases related to abuse and neglect,” he noted. “These extra efforts have kept us timely over the long run of the pandemic.”