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Prince George
County, VA

Va. Supreme Court allows Hopewell and Prince George to hold jury trials in Beacon Theater during pandemic

In what may be one of the most uniquely improvised court settings in Virginia, the Beacon Theatre in Hopewell has been approved by the Virginia Supreme Court as a temporary venue for Hopewell and Prince George County circuit courts to hold jury trials for the remainder of the pandemic.

In a letter dated Wednesday, Chief Justice Donald Lemons informed Edward Tomko III, chief judge of Virginia’s 6th Judicial Circuit, that Hopewell and Prince George immediately could begin the resumption of jury trials using the Beacon Theatre, as long as both courts adhere to strict plans they devised to ensure the safety of all participants during the pandemic. Surry County Circuit Court, which also is part of the 6th Circuit, is also allowed to use the facility.

The theater is owned and operated by the city of Hopewell and has been used during the pandemic for shows and performances at 30% capacity.

A mock jury trial was conducted inside the theater on Aug. 4 to test the viability of using it for court proceedings, according to the 6th Judicial Circuit’s plan submitted by Tomko.

 

Photo exhibits attached to the plan show the theater’s elevated stage being used during the mock trial for the judge’s bench, witness stand and prosecution and defense tables. Mock jurors, wearing face masks, are shown seated in the theater’s gallery with four seats separating each of them.

The Hopewell Courthouse, which is across the street from the theater, would be used to handle incarcerated defendants standing trial, along with witnesses who will testify.

 

It was determined that no courtroom or courthouse in the 6th Judicial District can accommodate a public jury trial while maintaining social distancing requirements and protecting public health and safety, Tomko wrote in the courts’ plan.

The other circuit courts in the 6th Judicial District — Greensville County/Emporia, Brunswick County and Sussex County — have been authorized to hold jury trials inside Golden Leaf Commons, a 9,000-square-foot multiuse assembly hall in Greensville that is owned and operated by that locality, according to the plan.

 

Laurin Willis, general manager of the Beacon Theatre, said the theater’s only requirement for courts using the facility is that trials cannot be held on days that performances have been scheduled.

“This is something we originally started talking about back in June and July,” Willis said. “The only stipulations that we put upon them were that it can’t be on days where we have shows. And with the way that shows are falling off right now, to late 2021 to early 2022, I actually have more openings now than I did back when we were originally talking to them.”

The city of Hopewell has installed high-efficiency particulate air scrubbers at the theater to reduce the spread of airborne pathogens. The facility has sufficient conference space to accommodate jury assembly and deliberation while maintaining social distancing of at least 6 feet, according to the courts’ plan.

With Hopewell and Prince George circuit courts now approved to resume jury trials, all but one court in the region — Petersburg — has had their plans approved by the state’s highest court.

 
 

Henrico County Circuit Court, which received approval in August, was the first in the state to resume jury trials since the outset of the pandemic. Circuit courts in Richmond, Colonial Heights, Chesterfield County and Hanover County were authorized in September and October.

The Virginia Supreme Court has now given the green light to 52 circuit courts across the state to resume jury trials after the plans they submitted on how to safely proceed were approved by a panel of three justices.

The high court issued a “judicial emergency” in mid-March that barred jury trials across the state. The prohibition has been extended 13 times and is still in effect, at least until Jan. 3.

 

mbowes@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6450