Yakima County soon will see its first jury trial since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to a new jury selection system at the Yakima SunDome.

There, prospective jurors will be spread out across the arena floor where 6 feet of social distancing is easily obtainable.

A judge’s bench has been erected and podiums set up for lawyers to address members of the jury pool.

Public seating along the west side of the dome will be available with social distancing employed.

Court staff spent about 700 hours since early August developing the jury selection system at the SunDome, Judge David Elofson said Wednesday

“This is a big deal,” he said while walking through the SunDome. “The amount of effort, the detail they’ve gone through — just phenomenal.”

Getting the system going again will help reduce a backlog of cases dating to mid-March, when much of the court’s operations — including jury trials — were suspended.

“I say let’s do these things. Let’s get it done,” said Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Joe Brusic. “I’m excited.”

Safety

Those called for jury duty will park on the west side of the SunDome and have their temperatures taken before checking in with the clerks, said Court Services Director Jessica Humphreys.

Personal protective equipment will be supplied, she said.

Potential jurors will then be escorted one at a time by a bailiff to their seats. More than 200 chairs have been placed 6 feet apart at the center of the SunDome.

Hand sanitizers dot the area. A room upstairs will be used for private interviews.

“We want everyone to be as safe as possible,” Humphreys said.

Only jury selection will occur at the SunDome. Trials will resume at the courthouse, but not in the same way as before.

Witnesses will occupy jury boxes. The jury will sit in the gallery, and the public will view proceedings from a TV in jury deliberation rooms, Humphreys said.

Court staff held a walk-through with attorneys Tuesday night, showing them how the system would work.

“We really wanted their input to make sure we thought of everything,” Humphreys said. “I think it went fairly well.”

Backlog

Elofson said the courts hear anywhere from 35 to 40 jury trials a year, and anticipates a backlog about that big.

And the courts won’t be able to run through those trials, either, as followup investigations may still be needed in some cases, he said.

Since mid-March, attorneys have not been able to conduct face-to-face interviews. Many had to rely on phone calls or video chats. But not everyone has a cellphone or computer.

“That’s really held some stuff down,” Elosfson said. “Part of the problem is people lose phones, can’t work. How do you reach them?”

That resulted in suspects being released because they couldn’t face a jury trial, he said.

“There’s no incentive to work the case because there’s no end-game,” Brusic said.

Things recently changed, however. On Sept. 1, lawyers were allowed to resume in-person interviews and word of jury trials resuming has led to several pleas.

“Today and tomorrow, we have upwards of about 20 pleas as a result,” Brusic said.

Brusic said there are hundreds of cases in which felony charges have been referred and need to be resolved. He said the courts will be adding 30 of those a week to the docket.

“We’re absolutely moving forward and we as a prosecutor’s office, I fully embrace what Superior Court has done,” Brusic said. “We need the community to know that we need their help and support and we need them to show up to jury duty.”

Reach Phil Ferolito at pferolito@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @philipferolito