Law360 (October 30, 2020, 10:53 PM EDT) -- Pittsburgh's federal court district has ordered a halt to nearly all jury trials until February, saying the pandemic's recent push to new peaks is preventing courts from acquiring a "full, unhindered, continuously serving jury" and cutting defense lawyers off from their jailed clients.
Citing the "materially negative direction" of the coronavirus pandemic in recent weeks, Western District of Pennsylvania Chief Judge Mark Hornak said the district will put a blanket halt on jury trials until Feb. 8, 2021.
The unavailability of health care workers, high-risk citizens, those who rely on now-limited public transit, "and those who will face substantial childcare challenges arising from the renewed closure of schools … creates a serious impact" on jury selection, the court said.
The situation would demand "ever-larger jury venire pools for potential service and potentially diminish ... the representative nature of the pool of summoned jurors," the court said.
For criminal defense lawyers, they are experiencing huge challenges in being able to communicate with their clients behind bars, a necessity for a fair defense, the order said.
Some prisons and jails have "materially limited or as to certain detained individuals prohibited direct physical visitation and interaction of counsel," it said.
The district is also using new methods to schedule trials. It will attempt a very limited number of pilot trials starting in November to test safety procedures, it said. Then, starting in February, the order envisions that each division in the district may begin to hold one criminal trial at a time.
"The court may cause the designation of a primary and one or more 'backup' jury selections/trials for any designated trial slot," it said.
The district is home to a handful of high-profile criminal cases. This month, a grand jury in the district indicted six Russian military officers for cyberattacks, including the destructive 2017 NotPetya malware attack, from the same intelligence unit accused of interfering with the 2016 presidential election.
Also pending in the district are criminal cases related to money laundering charges against 14 alleged members of international criminal cryptocurrency ring QQAAZZ and tax fraud charges against the CEO of a healthcare-related company.
But Friday's order excluded all time from March 13, 2020, until Feb. 8, 2021, from being counted toward the 70-day limit mandated under the Speedy Trial Act of 1974.
The order encouraged judges to conduct court business remotely, by phone or video, whenever possible.
--Additional reporting by Emilie Ruscoe, Daniel Wilson and Matthew Santoni. Editing by Emily Kokoll.
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