Next week, more residents of Penobscot County will be notified of their upcoming jury duty than have ever been called before as Maine courts, which drastically limited operations in mid-March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, slowly resume full operations.
Summonses will be mailed Monday to 500 people from a list of those with Maine driver’s licenses and identification cards. Sixteen of those people — 12 jurors and four alternates — will be chosen next month to decide if Carine Reeves, 40, of New York City is guilty or not guilty of shooting to death Sally Shaw, 55, of New Gloucester three years ago in Cherryfield.
Reeves’ case — Maine’s first murder trial since the coronavirus shut down much of the state — and a few jury trials yet to be scheduled next month in Augusta will be pilot projects for the court system as it adjusts to operating during the pandemic. Clerks at the Capital Judicial Center plan to summon 250 Kennebec County residents for jury duty.
Instead of being told when to show up at courthouses in Bangor and Augusta for jury selection, people will be asked to fill out a written questionnaire included with the summons and return it within five days. The questionnaire, which usually would be filled out when people came to a courthouse, will include questions about potential jurors’ health and their vulnerability to the coronavirus. It also will tell potential jurors that if selected, they must wear masks at all times when in the courthouses.
It will ask the standard questions about upcoming surgeries, vacation or work trips, their ability to sit comfortably for several hours at a time, whether they have reliable child care or elder care, if applicable, and whether they can be fair and impartial.
The cost of mailing out the questionnaire to jurors was not available Friday.
Judges and lawyers for the defense and the prosecution will review the filled-out questionnaires, which must include a cell phone or landline number, and decide who should be excused based on their responses.
Potential jurors who are not excused will be sent text messages or telephoned and told when to come to their county courthouse in September for jury selection. Between 40 and 50 potential jurors will be asked to come to the courthouses in staggered time blocks to ensure social distancing can be maintained. Like everyone who enters the judicial center, they will be asked by entry screeners about their recent exposure to COVID-19, if they are experiencing symptoms of the disease or have a fever.
In Bangor, potential jurors will be questioned individually by lawyers and the judge, who also will be wearing masks. Those questions might be to clarify answers from the questionnaires, to determine how well a potential juror might know witnesses, family members of the victim, lawyers or court personnel. Because Carine Reeves is Black, questions for jury selection in his case also might focus on attitudes toward race.
Once prosecutors and defense attorneys have winnowed the jury pool in Reeves’ case down to 38 people, 16 will be chosen to hear evidence. The final jury pool number is smaller in other cases — 32 for felonies that aren’t homicides and 24 for misdemeanor trials.
Under Maine law, jurors must be U.S. citizens, at least 18 years old, reside in the county where the trial will be held, and able to read, speak and understand English, unless the inability is the result of a physical disability. The only people exempted from jury service are the governor, members of the armed forces on active duty and some municipal and state election officials during elections.
Judges have the authority to excuse people from duty if they show it would be an undue hardship, extreme inconvenience or because of a physical or mental disability. A person 80 years or older who does not wish to serve on a jury may be excused. In addition, Maine residents aren’t required to serve as jurors more than once in any five-year period and three times in their lifetimes.
The Reeves trial was moved by agreement last year from Washington County to Penobscot County. If a change of venue had not been granted, the trial would have had to move anyway, either to Bangor, Augusta or Portland, as those are the only courthouses in the state large enough to allow for the social distancing of jurors.
At the Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor, two of the three trial courtrooms and the large conference room on the second floor will be needed to conduct Reeves’ trial. The largest courtroom will be reserved for the trial and a second smaller courtroom will be set aside as a jury room where jurors will be assigned seats. The conference room will host members of the public, including the victim’s family members and reporters, who will be able to watch a live feed of the trial off of stationery security cameras in the large courtroom.
In the trial courtroom, jurors will have to sit in the gallery rather than in the jury box to make sure everyone is six feet apart. The prosecution and defense tables will be turned around to face jurors rather than the judge. The witness box will not be used. To testify, witnesses will sit in the back row of the jury box in the chair closest to the gallery. The court reporter also will sit in the jury box. Only the judge, the court clerk and some court officers will be in their usual places.
Stephen Smith, the Augusta attorney representing Reeves, is expected to file a motion objecting to the trial plan, which calls for everyone to wear a mask, including the defendant and witnesses when they take the stand.
Peter Schleck, manager of operations at the Bangor courthouse, said that a record number of people are being called for jury duty in Bangor to make sure there are enough potential jurors who are comfortable serving, willing to wear masks, abide by social distancing standards and who can be fair and impartial.
More than six years ago, a record number of 400 potential jurors were called in May 2014 for the triple murder trial of Nicholas Sexton of Warwick, Rhode Island, and Randall Daluz of Brockton, Massachusetts. They were accused of killing Nicolle A. Lugdon, 24, of Eddington, Daniel T. Borders, 26, of Hermon and Lucas A. Tuscano, 28, of Bradford, in Bangor in August 2012.
Both men were convicted and are expected to spend the rest of their lives in prison.