Our entire country is properly focused on slowing and stopping the deadly spread of the COVID- 19 pandemic — as normal lives and activities of our citizens and institutions have been profoundly impacted.
Still, it is vitally important for the work of our justice system to continue, as safely as possible.
Finding the appropriate balance between the active pursuit of justice and protecting public health, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Florida this month successfully conducted the first federal or state in-person criminal jury trial in Florida since COVID-19 restrictions began in March.
We were careful to proceed to trial with a jury present in a criminal case — as one of only a handful of federal courts around the nation and the first and only one in Florida.
The successful trial reflects the Northern District’s determination to carefully balance moving the federal justice system forward with its essential functions even as we place a premium on protecting public health. Similarly, two months ago we announced that federal grand juries had quietly resumed activity in the Northern District, which encompasses 23 counties stretching from Pensacola down to Gainesville.
We want the public to have trust and confidence that their justice system has not been sidelined by COVID-19. The wheels of the federal justice system will continue to turn as surely and safely as possible, while ensuring the well-being of everyone in the process — from judges and jurors to lawyers and defendants.
Conducting the grand jury proceedings and the in-person criminal jury trial were significant achievements, given limitations imposed by COVID-19. When the July 6 jury trial date was set, all potentially affected parties came together to ensure that appropriate steps were in place to protect the health and safety of jurors, court personnel, witnesses, attorneys, and the defendant.
The federal judiciary, Clerk of Court, United States Marshals Service, court security officers, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office closely followed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines while planning how to safely select and seat the jury and determining the safest way to conduct the trial itself.
The presiding judge met with the attorneys for the prosecution and defense so that all concerns were addressed before the trial began. The success of carrying out the first full criminal jury trial in this challenging time underscored our confidence in our system’s competence to proceed with cases of all types going forward.
We salute the work of all in that case, particularly the jurors whose willingness to safely perform their civic duties in the midst of the pandemic made them heroes. They appreciated the responsibility they accepted and served despite the unprecedented health crisis affecting all our communities.
While we’re committed to maintaining regular operations as much as possible, safety comes first. Just a week after the Pensacola jury reached its verdict, Chief United States District Judge Mark E. Walker temporarily closed both Pensacola federal courthouses to the public in order to protect public safety. We fully support that decision — because we share the priority of protecting public health and safety. We look forward to the reopening of the Pensacola courthouses, and the resumption of grand jury proceedings and criminal jury trials in them.
We want people to know that we intend to continue to pursue timely justice and protect the public safety and interest, as much as possible.
The United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Florida is one of 94 offices that serve as the nation’s principal litigators under the direction of the Attorney General.
To access available public court documents online, please visit the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida website. For more information about the United States Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Florida, visit justice.gov/usao/fln/index.html.
Larry Keefe is the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Florida.