As of this week, jury trials are restarting in local Massachusetts courts for the first time since the pandemic hit in March. Not in the Berkshires, however.
Because no existing courthouse is considered safe for trials in Berkshire County, the Executive Office of the Trial Court has been shopping for locations with physical characteristics that can allow people to gather indoors during the pandemic without risk of contagion.
The leading candidate appears to be space at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield. The Eagle reported in late November that the shuttered Berkshire Mall has also been under consideration.
John A. Bello, the associate court administrator, recently toured four sites in Pittsfield the state is considering, according to Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington.
In a memo Jan. 4 to four top judges in the county, Harrington said Bello indicated that trials would start at BCC, with the goal of finding a longer-term site nearer to the existing court complex. She told the judges the state expects to have designs ready soon detailing how alternative space would be used for trials, adding that Bello has not said when proceedings might begin.
Erika Gully-Santiago, a spokeswoman for the trial court, said Tuesday the state is “actively pursuing potential locations within the county” but did not say which site is the top contender. She said trials would begin again in the Berkshires “as soon as feasible.”
Harrington told The Eagle that her office is recommending a location closer to the city’s center. “We were interested in steering them closer to downtown Pittsfield for transportation reasons,” she said. The BCC campus, which can be reached by bus, is about three and a half miles west of downtown.
As of this week, no jury trials have been scheduled in the county, Harrington said.
Though an amendment to the U.S. Constitution calls to allow defendants a “speedy trial,” the state Supreme Judicial Court held last year that public health risks posed by the pandemic override that right.
In late November, the state delayed the resumption of trials scheduled for Nov. 30, citing the likelihood of rising COVID-19 infections over the holidays.
In select locations, trials with six-member juries are again being held as of this week. The first phase of proceedings under the resumed schedule is expected to run for two months, as officials monitor how it is working.
“Court leaders continue to seek to balance the critical right to trial by jury with health and safety concerns of trial participants,” the trial court said in a statement.
As of late November, local prosecutors faced a backlog of 2,098 District Court cases and 197 cases in Berkshire Superior Court.
Harrington’s office had expected to start a Berkshire Superior Court trial Nov. 10. It was called off after an October inspection by a consulting company, Tighe & Bond, questioned whether the court could ensure safety, given the virus, due both to its layout and building systems.