In-person jury trials in Miami-Dade County will resume March 1, officials announced, nearly one year after the courts shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The announcement by Chief Judge Bertila Soto comes as the numbers of coronavirus cases has dipped and more people are being vaccinated - but also as the so-called "U.K. variant" of the virus, thought to be significantly more contagious, is taking an alarming hold in Florida. The new date for jury trials in Miami comes as the jails population has mushroomed back up to about 4,000 inmates, around the number from before the pandemic.
Soto, in an interview, said health experts consulted by the courts are confident that the positivity rate is low enough and safety precautions sufficient to start jury trials, despite the new strain. She cautioned that the civil and criminal courthouses will still be largely empty as remote hearings continue - and no more than three trials per building will take place at any given time.
"We decided it was time," Soto said. "Plenty of people are waiting for their day in court."
As with other public spaces, Miami-Dade's courthouses were largely shut down in mid-March as the highly contagious virus swept across the globe.
The Florida Supreme Court on March 13, 2020 suspended jury trials and speedy trials, while the system contracted with Zoom, the now-ubiquitous video-conferencing service, to start holding virtual hearings. The Miami-Dade criminal justice building, which is notoriously cramped and aging, has remained largely closed to the public, although clerks and judges have been working there while conducting Zoom hearings.
For months, a task force of court and county officials, prosecutors, defense lawyers and health experts have been meeting regularly to game plan how criminal jury trials might unfold safely in Miami-Dade.
Even as jury trials have resumed in other parts of the state, Miami-Dade court officials had hoped to resume jury trials in late 2020, on a limited basis. But no cases could be found to be tried - and the holiday surge of COVID-19 cases forced the courts to again suspend trials through Feb. 28.
Since January, COVID-19 cases have dropped about 50% from an average of about 16,000 per day. And the number of people being treated for the illness in Florida hospitals has declined by about 30%, from a mid-January peak of about 7,770.
But the more-contagious B.1.1.7 variant, also known as the U.K. variant of the virus, is flourishing in Florida. Recent studies by private researchers and federal officials predict it will be the predominant strain of the COVID virus in Florida by March, and could accelerate deaths and illnesses before enough people are vaccinated.
In the Miami-Dade criminal division, officials have identified 30 cases that are ready to go to trial on March 1.
Potential jurors will be asked to register online or by phone, to help select smaller pools who would be able to serve. Jurors will be selected from in-person pools of about 30 to 35 candidates.
Everyone in court will have to wear masks and regularly wash or sanitize their hands. To maintain social distancing, each trial will utilize three courtrooms - one for the proceedings, one for lawyers to meet with clients and witnesses, and one for the jurors to take breaks and deliberate.
"We know our jury rooms are woefully inadequate in our courthouses," said Circuit Judge Nushin Sayfie, who heads the criminal division and will become the chief judge on July 1.
Some meals will be available for jurors through the building's two cafeterias, and jurors will encouraged to bring their own meals. Trials will also be live streamed on YouTube, court officials say, to comply with the public's right to attend.
"There is certainly legitimate concern about beginning trials, but one thing we don't do as criminal defense lawyers is run away from hard things," said Jude Faccidomo, the president-elect of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, who is on the task force in Miami-Dade. "Provided that safety is the guiding principle, the effort to begin in March with at least a single trial is a laudable one."
Miami Herald staff writer Ben Conarck contributed to this report.