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Jury trials return to St. John Parish

EDGARD — After a year of stagnation during the COVID-19 pandemic, civil and criminal trials have finally returned to the 40th Judicial District Court.

The first trial of 2021 took place on March 22, when local attorneys Kathryn and Daniel “Becket” Becnel of LaPlace represented two plaintiffs in a car accident case against Allstate Insurance before Division B Judge Nghana Lewis.

However, jury trials did not return until the Louisiana Supreme Court lifted restrictions on April 1, 2021. Division C Judge Sterling Snowdy conducted his first civil jury trial of 2021 on April 5 and his first criminal trial of 2021 on April 13.

“The Louisiana Supreme Court had a rolling order that prohibited jury trials for several months, and that was extended for several more months. The latest restriction was lifted on April 1. We’re coming back now,” Snowdy said. “We feel for all litigants, all defendants in front of us. They are due their day in court, but this COVID situation has limited trials to an extreme extent.”

The one exception to the year-long trial shutdown in St. John the Baptist Parish was the trial of former Division B Judge Jeff Perilloux, who was convicted in September 2020 on three felony counts of indecent behavior and one misdemeanor count of sexual battery.

“The Perilloux trial went forward throughout the restrictions because it was a special case, and then it went dark jury-wise again until last Monday,” Snowdy said. “We’ve tried to do our best throughout the pandemic. We’ve kept our courthouse open. We’re getting closer to normal every day.”

Becket Becnel said several protective measures are in place for trials in the Edgard Courthouse and the courthouse annex in LaPlace, including temperature checks, plexiglass barriers and the required use of facemasks.

Following the shutdown in March 2020, Becnel began meeting with clients by appointment only in June. For most of the year, court matters including preliminary exams, arraignments, plea bargains and bond reductions were handled via Zoom.

The Department of Corrections refrained from transporting inmates except in extreme matters. There were some benefits to virtual hearings, according to Becnel.

“A lot of the time (before the pandemic), you would be waiting on inmates to come from different parishes, so it’s a lot more efficient to have them right there waiting on Zoom. But you can’t do trials that way,” he said.

According to Becnel, the pandemic has also resulted in fewer arrests and fewer traffic tickets in St. John the Baptist Parish. This has equated to a decrease in funding for the St. John Parish Public Defender’s Office.

The Public Defender’s Office, which provides legal representation for individuals who are unable to afford an attorney, had already seen a significant decrease in funding from court costs in the two-year period prior to the pandemic.

Now that trials are back, Becnel also foresees challenges in finding jurors who are able and willing to serve in-person with COVID-19 risks still lingering in the community.

Snowdy said St. John Parish is not currently in a position to have jurors serve virtually. However, individuals who are subpoenaed for jury duty but do not feel comfortable attending court in person are invited to write a letter to the judge explaining their concerns.

Snowdy is willing to excuse jurors at a higher risk for COVID-19 complications. During the jury selection process, the pool of potential jurors is also split into two groups to promote social distancing.

“When we reopened in a limited matter, we still offered to Zoom in people who did not want to come to court, but I’d say we’re up to 95 percent in-person court appearance right now, except for in criminal cases,” Snowdy said.

Several trials, both criminal and civil, have been backlogged, and Snowdy expects to have a steady flow of trials each month for the rest of the year to work out that backlog.

“We’re very mindful now of people’s time. We try to clear things in advance now as much as possible, but you have to always be able to pivot quickly. Agility is something I’m taking from the pandemic,” Snowdy said. “When they give you lemons, you have to make lemonade. You have to be able to pivot very quickly from one format, one technology, one issue to another. I think it’s sharpened our game.”