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Jury trials to resume in 5th Judicial District

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Alex Ross Photo The entrance to the Chaves County Courthouse at 400 N. Virginia Ave. The New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts announced this week that jury trials in magistrate and district courts in New Mexico’s 5th Judicial District can resume starting Monday, after the New Mexico Supreme Court reviewed a plan for the district to expand operations while adopting COVID-19 safe practices. The 5th Judicial District consists of courts in Chaves, Eddy and Lea counties.

Jury trials can resume in Chaves County starting Monday, after the New Mexico Supreme Court approved a plan for courts in the 5th Judicial District to do so while taking measures to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The New Mexico Office of Administrative Courts in a press release Thursday announced criminal and civil jury trials will resume next week in magistrate and district courts across the 5th Judicial District — comprised of Chaves, Eddy and Lea counties — after the New Mexico Supreme Court approved the district’s plan to expand operations.

“We are pleased that the 5th Judicial District’s plan to resume full operations, including jury trials, has been approved by the New Mexico Supreme Court. We are implementing an array of precautions intended to make sure that jurors and everyone else who comes into our courthouses can do so safely,” Chief Justice James M. Hudson of the 5th Judicial District stated in the release.

Although courts remained open during the pandemic, the Supreme Court in March temporarily halted jury trials in accordance with the state’s public health emergency and as a means of slowing the spread of the virus.

Each of the state’s 13 judicial districts must submit a plan for review and approval by the state Supreme Court no later than July 15 before they can hold jury trials. The plans must detail how a district’s courthouse can expand its operations while adopting specific COVID-19 safe practices.

According to the release, the 5th Judicial District’s plan includes, among other elements:

• A mandate that anyone entering a courthouse wear a mask. Jurors, the judge, attorneys and all other participants must wear protective face coverings during jury trials.

• Temperature checks and health screenings on anyone entering a courthouse. Individuals who exhibit COVID-19 symptoms will not be allowed into a judicial building.

• Jurors seated 6 feet apart in compliance with social distancing guidelines. The release states depending on the individual courthouses, this will be done either by seating some jurors in the jury box and others in a row of chairs in front of the box, or in the courtroom gallery.

• Juries in courtrooms deliberate after all other individuals exit. During trial recesses, jurors will be divided into smaller groups and placed in different rooms.

• Masks and hand sanitizer provided to jurors, while hand sanitizer will be available throughout a courthouse.

• Visual aid markers encouraging social distancing posted throughout a courthouse.

• Regular cleaning and disinfecting high-touch surfaces throughout the courthouse, including handrails, doors, countertops and courthouse kiosks.

• Clear plastic dividers placed in areas where space is restricted, including courtroom tables.

To limit the number of people coming into courthouses, audio-video conferencing will continue to be used for most non-jury proceedings, while attorneys and litigants will continue to be able to file documents electronically instead of going to the courthouse.

Members of the media and the public will be provided with access to trials and hearings through online means, through an audio-video monitor set up in a separate room, or courtroom seating, the release states.

Attorneys though have voiced concern in at least one high-profile upcoming trial about how the restrictions will impact proceedings.

District Judge Dustin Hunter at a June 15 pretrial hearing granted a motion for continuance in the trial of Juan Villegas-Hernandez, who faces charges in connection with the June 2016 fatal shooting of his wife and four daughters.

Jury selection was scheduled to begin July 6 in the case, with a trial set to last from July 7 to 17.

Hunter granted the motion for continuance requested by Herman Ortiz, Villegas-Hernandez’s attorney, who voiced concerns that limits on the number of people allowed in a courtroom at a given time could impact the jury selection process.

The court will likely decide how to proceed with the trial of Villegas-Hernandez when Hunter, the defense and prosecution meet July 10 for a deposition.

Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext, 301, or breakingnews@rdrnews.com.