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Jury Trials Resume in Harrison and Hancock Counties

Jurors returned to courtrooms in Harrison and Hancock counties recently as the Second Circuit Court District resumed jury trials that had been postponed due to the pandemic.

Circuit Judge Lisa P. Dodson tried a five-day civil case in Bay St. Louis starting Aug. 18, and Circuit Judge Christopher Schmidt tried a two-day burglary trial in Biloxi Sept. 22 and 23. When a defendant scheduled for trial before Circuit Judge Roger Clark pleaded guilty in August in Gulfport with jurors waiting, Judge Dodson picked a grand jury from those panels. Jurors were summoned in early September for a trial before Circuit Judge Larry Bourgeois, but that defendant pleaded guilty. Judge Schmidt also seated a grand jury in Stone County Circuit Court in Wiggins in July.

Judge Dodson said, “It's just a matter of trying to follow the guidelines and keep everyone safe and keep things moving because we have folks that want a trial and that need a trial, and they are entitled to a trial. We had to figure out how to do this to keep the system moving and keep the cases moving.” She said. “As we expected, a lot of the folks in the criminal cases who said they wanted trials, really didn't want trials. They just wanted a continuance.” With prospective jurors at the courthouse, “now a lot of them have gone ahead and entered guilty pleas.”

Judge Schmidt said, “Potential jurors should not feel worried about coming in. We make the safety of jurors and the participants a priority.”

After the burglary trial in Biloxi, “The jurors said afterwards that they were comfortable and didn't have any complaints on how we implemented the safety measures,” Judge Schmidt said.

Judge Dodson said jurors in Bay St. Louis did not complain about safety concerns. “It was just the usual grumpiness about having to be there for jury duty.”

Each time jurors are summoned; they were screened in advance to avoid having someone who might be ill come to the courthouse. Prospective jurors received instructions by mail advising that the Court would excuse anyone who was ill, persons taking care of someone who had COVID-19 or having had recent contact with someone who COVID-19, persons having certain health conditions that could put them at risk, persons with recent jury service, and a few other circumstances.

Bailiffs took everyone's temperature upon arrival at the courthouse, and prospective jurors were questioned again about whether they were ill or had come into contact with someone who was ill. Everyone wore masks.

Fitting jurors and participants safely into the available space meant adding seats to jury boxes and marking seats. In Bay St. Louis, Judge Dodson separated prospective jurors into two groups and did jury qualification in two different courtrooms so that people could maintain six feet of separation. Signs taped to chairs directed “sit here” and lots of painter's tape x marks on the floor marked locations for chairs.

In Bay St. Louis and Biloxi, jurors used another courtroom as the jury room.

Judge Dodson said, “It was a lot more work than normal. Before (the pandemic), you summoned jurors, they came in and you did not have to worry about who is sitting where, if they have a mask, if they had fever. It was a lot more labor intensive for everyone. It takes everyone to do it. It took clerks, deputies and my staff to make it work.”

A Hancock County Circuit Court jury on Saturday, Aug. 22, voted to award $1,292,909 damages to Michael Brandner Sr. Brandner was injured on April 14, 2017, when the truck he was driving was struck by a van driven by Trevor Lykins and owned by Golconda Holdings LLC. Brandner sued Golconda Holdings, Lykins, State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company and Privilege Underwriters Reciprocal Exchange Insurance Company.

The Harrison County Circuit Court jury found Adisa Jemel Braziel guilty of burglary on Sept. 23. Braziel is set for sentencing on Dec. 7.

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