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Jury trials still on hold

County Courthouse allowed to remain open until renovation

COURTLAND

The Supreme Court of Virginia’s declaration of judicial emergency in light of the COVID-19 pandemic has been extended through Sept. 20. As such, most jury trials that were set to resume in Southampton County starting Sept. 10 will likely again be postponed.

According to Southampton County Clerk of Circuit Court Richard Francis, any trial that was scheduled before Sept. 20 will now need its attorney to file a motion asking a judge to hear it. Then the judge will decide the risk.

“I’m thinking that if there’s any case that’s going to need a significant number of witnesses, that the trial won’t be heard until after Sept. 20, it will likely get continued,” Francis said. “We just don’t have the place [room] for social distancing of several witnesses out of the courtroom.”

He added that if there’s “smaller” trials such as traffic appeals that only need a few witnesses, those could be heard with the court’s approval.

Since July, Southampton County personnel have been working to modify the circuit courtroom to facilitate social distancing and install sneeze guards between juror seats and rows, ahead of a much more extensive renovation planned to begin sometime next year. In an email to County Administrator Mike Johnson, Chief Judge Carl Eason Jr. indicated these modifications would remain in place not only for the remainder of the pandemic, but also until the more extensive renovation begins.

Franklin’s City Council and Southampton County’s Board of Supervisors each voted in late July to formally approve a conceptual plan by their latest courthouse architect, Glavé & Holmes, issuing a notice on Aug. 1 for the renovation project to proceed into a six- to nine-month design phase. During this phase, the concept will be worked into a full schematic design that will be used during the 14- to 16-month construction phase.

“The judges have agreed if we all stay on track with this conceptual plan that they will allow the court to maintain in Courtland until construction actually begins,” City Manager Amanda Jarratt informed Franklin’s City Council the night of its vote on the concept.

A little over a year ago, Eason had issued the county and city an ultimatum, threatening to shutter the courthouse and move its caseloads to neighboring localities by the end of July 2020 on the grounds that it was no longer safe for occupancy unless “actual and meaningful physical renovations” had begun.

Current estimates call for the design phase to be complete by the end of April 2021 and for construction to be complete by November 2022.

STEPHEN H. COWLES, staff writer, contributed to this story.