Even with the pandemic raging, the legal system marches on, though finding adequate space to safety select a jury hasn’t been easy.
To address the challenge, Missoula County commissioners this week agreed to fund the use of a local hotel with ample convention space to allow for the safe separation of potential jurors as they’re selected for trial.
“We have been attempting to locate space to conduct jury selection primarily for District Court trials, but also in the event we had a large jury pool for Justice Court trials, really since the pandemic started and jury trials started up again over the summer,” said Erica Grinde, the county’s risk manager.
Over the summer, with warmer temperatures, jury screenings could be held outside the county courthouse. But during the winter months, that’s no longer an option. Nor is streaming a video to a split jury pool occupying multiple courtrooms.
“It isn’t an ideal situation for jury selection when you have sometimes up to 100 different potential jurors present,” Grinde said. “We landed at the Double Tree as the most reasonable space to utilize for these screenings.”
Jury trials continued at the directive of Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath in his May 22 order to District Court judges. That came after Gov. Steve Bullock moved the state to its Phase 2 reopening.
The county began holding jury trials again in July, but has had only one. Grinde said the others have been vacated. But a number of trials are scheduled next year, and adequate space for jury selection is pressing.
“The reality is, if jury trials are going to continue, we need to have a space where the potential jurors can be spaced out with a six-foot circle around them,” Grinde said. “We don’t have a space within the county facilities to accommodate that.”
Use of the Double Tree will cost $500 per use.
“We have verified the availability of this space for all the trials that are set between now and the end of June,” Grinde said.