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Courts confront COVID-19 challenges as jury trials resume

A district court judge for Catawba, Burke and Caldwell Counties describes being diagnosed with COVID-19 and presiding over cases during a pandemic.

GASTONIA, N.C. — North Carolina's court systems continue to confront challenges of protecting public health while simultaneously ensuring criminal defendants' right to a speedy and public trial.

WCNC Charlotte has confirmed at least two judges have tested positive for COVID019 in different judicial districts, including District Court Judge Michael Lands in Gaston County, and District Court Judge Clifton Smith in Catawba, Burke and Caldwell Counties.

Judge Smith said he only has "very mild symptoms," and even though he's quarantining, he's still working from home.

"Just today, I was talking to a judge in Mecklenburg County trying to learn how they're doing some of the remote cases in their civil cases," Judge Smith said during a Thursday afternoon Zoom interview.

He said courts must continue to hear cases as the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees criminal defendants the right to a speedy and public trial.

RELATED: Gaston County judge returned to the bench while awaiting positive COVID-19 test result

In his three-county district, Judge Smith said bailiffs and deputies play an important role in screening people in the courthouse lobby. They also ensure everyone wears masks and sits six-feet apart inside courtrooms.

In Burke County, Judge Smith holds district criminal court in a large space at the Foothills Higher Education Center in Morganton.

Typically, the criminal district court has hundreds of cases on the docket.

"You can see way in the back," Judge Smith said. "We have a microphone system and utilize that. It's very helpful."

Gaston County will start holding jury trials in January 2021.

Gaston County Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Jesse Caldwell III said trials will be held in the Harley B. Gaston, Jr. auditorium, which is typically used by county commissioners for their meetings.

He said all jurors will be spaced six feet apart, and the space will be deep-cleaned every day.

However, Judge Caldwell, III has no control over what people participating in a trial will do outside the courthouse.

"To some extent, we're going to have to trust the jurors," Judge Caldwell III said. "We say [to jurors], 'don't talk with anybody,' [but] we don't monitor. We don't eavesdrop."

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