• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

In-person court to resume in May

Criminal defendants who are not in custody will start appearing in

Woodford Circuit Court in May, according to 14th Circuit judges Jeremy

Mattox and Brian Privett.

Motion hour dockets will be staggered to limit the number of people in a

courtroom, Privett said. He said in-custody defendants will continue

appearing remotely from jails via Zoom, which eliminates transportation

costs. “So it’ll be a combination of Zoom and in-person,” he added.

Mattox said out-of-custody defendants in his court will have the option

in May to appear via Zoom or in person. For a sentencing or revocation

hearing, he will require them to appear in person, he added.

Mattox said his court will return to in person without a Zoom option in

June. His docket will continue being conducted in 30-minute intervals to

reduce the number of people in his courtroom, he said.

“It’s easier to do it one way or another,” said Mattox. “And we get more

accomplished in person than via Zoom because people can actually sit

down and talk to their attorneys, meet with their attorneys. If there’s

paperwork to fill out, they can sit there (in the courtroom) and fill it

out. They can … talk to the attorney.” His frustrations with Zoom

include defendants not knowing how to un-mute and technical issues.

“Somebody’s trying to plead guilty and their connection keeps freezing.

It’s just frustrating. And then on my end if I mess up and it doesn’t

work on my end then it shuts the whole thing down, which has happened,”

said Mattox. Also, he said people treat court proceedings with more

respect and seriousness if they are in a courtroom with the judge.

Privett said he will continue using Zoom in his court for the

foreseeable future because it has been productive during motion hours.

However, during critical junctures of a case, he acknowledged he’d

rather see an attorney and a criminal defendant in person.

Privett said the “symbolic nature” of having someone in front of him in

the courtroom is important during arraignments, and for guilty pleas and

sentencings. “If you’re going to give a sentence that’s going to affect

somebody’s life,” he said, “…it’s important that they be there in person

and you look them in the face.”

Mattox said he also prefers seeing a person for sentencing. “If I’m

going to put someone in prison, I feel like I owe it to them to look

them in the eye …” he said.

With plans to begin jury trials in June, potential jurors will be asked

questions in smaller groups until a jury has been seated, Privett said.

Civil trials are being scheduled 14 months out, Privett said. He said

criminal defendants who are in custody will have trials first, but

trials for more serious charges will probably not be scheduled initially

because of the “kinks” that’ll need to be worked out.

“There are dozens of people who are sitting in jail waiting on their day

in court in our (three-county) circuit,” said Mattox. He said civil

trials aren’t being scheduled this calendar year, so those who are in

custody will have their day in court. He said victims involved in

criminal cases also want to see cases resolved.

The biggest differences during a trial will be a jury seated six-feet

apart from one another and everyone in the courtroom wearing a mask,

Privett said. And he said attorneys will be encouraged to present

evidence electronically when possible.

Because of space limitations in the courtroom and the need to maintain

“an open courthouse,” people will also be able to watch a trial via

Zoom, Privett said.

He said civil attorneys seem to prefer handling cases via Zoom because

they are balancing cases in multiple courts – and counties, which would

involve a lot of travel. Because it’s easier doing court one way or the

other, Mattox will continue doing his civil dockets on Zoom, he said.

From a personal perspective, Privett said he has missed seeing clerks

and bailiffs when he traveled from Bourbon County to courthouses in

Scott and Woodford counties.

“I think that everybody in a pandemic has missed out on interacting with

other people,” he said.

Privett also looks forward to seeing Drug Court participates and staff

in person again. That hasn’t been happening since March 2020, he said.

“May – we’re just trying to get to May at this point,” said Privett,

who’ll also celebrate a birthday in May. “… If we get back in person –

that’s much bigger than a birthday present.”

Mattox said there’s not a section in a judge’s “bench book,” that

explains how to conduct court in a pandemic. “We sort of made it up as

we went along,” he said.

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