You’re officially now at risk of being called in to jury duty again, as transparent masks, Zoom, and tiny jury pools have the wheels of justice turning once more.
A few small conveniences have made the bleak awfulness of our five-month shelter-in-place a little more tolerable — the now-lapsed suspension of street cleaning tickets, a notable lack of open container enforcement with to-go liquor from bars, and zero risk of jury duty letters demanding your presence at 850 Bryant Street since Governor Gavin Newsom shut down courthouses around the state in March. But like street cleaning tickets, jury duty is back, having started up again in July with a totally pedestrian and not notable burglary trial. And history is now in the books, as the Chronicle reports that San Francisco jurors have completed their first trial of the COVID-19 era, handing down a not guilty verdict after three days of deliberation.
The case itself was pretty uninteresting, but as KTVU pointed out at the start of the trial, there was some historic precedence in that the judge required witnesses to wear clear masks. And there was a constitutional argument at play; Deputy Public Defender Sierra Villaran argued that regular masks would violate her client’s constitutional rights by hiding witnesses’ faces while they testified. Assistant District Attorney Edward Chang shot back that plastic face shields posed too high a risk of coronavirus transmission. Hence the clear mask compromise demand from Judge Vedica Puri.
There were a few other very unconventional accommodations. The normal jury bench was not stacked, but instead jurors were six feet apart, with some of them watching the proceedings via Zoom in another chamber. Similarly, the public was not allowed in the courtroom, though some family members were also allowed Zoom-watching privileges at another chamber. Potential jury pools started at 20 people rather than the typical 80. Attorneys could not approach the judge’s bench for a whispering session, and such whispering sessions were relegated to the hall or the judge’s office. Similarly, the public defender and her client were so far apart they could not whisper, and were given court laptops over which they could chat.
The case — and again, it’s a boring one — saw 30-year-old David Brown accused of felony burglary after allegedly breaking into a condo at 400 Clementina Street and swiping a bag with a pair of shoes and headphones. The jury found that while Brown had entered the condo illegally, they could not be certain he took the bag from within the condo. They found him not guilty of felony burglary, which would have carried a stiff prison sentence.
Brown is now free, having served the time associated with the breaking and entering charge. But reader, you are no longer free of the threat of jury duty if you’re registered to vote here in the City and County of San Francisco.
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Image: Julie L via Yelp