Manhattan courthouses adapt to COVID so trials can return

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U.S. District Judge P. Kevin Castel is seen on the bench next to a witness box that is surrounded in plexiglass and contains a HEPA air filter, in a Manhattan federal courtroom, Friday, March 12, 2021, in New York. Castel, who presided over the first two pandemic-era jury trials in the fall, said COVID-19 protocols have become routine. Once everybody gets into the rhythm and the flow, after the first day or day and a half it feels very any other trial." (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

NEW YORK – The two big, busy federal courthouses in Manhattan took the adage that justice delayed is justice denied to heart when the coronavirus hit, creating a pandemic-safe environment for jurors that could be a blueprint for courts elsewhere.

After months of inactivity, they are holding trials again with a safety system that includes an air-filtered plexiglass booth for witnesses, an audio system that lets socially distant lawyers exchange whispers without putting their heads together and protocols to ensure that no document changes hands without being sprayed with disinfectant.

More than 100 trials are already scheduled this year, and a month after jury trials resumed following a post-Thanksgiving halt, there has been no traceable spread of COVID-19 at the courthouse, according to its chief administrator, District Executive Edward Friedland.

That’s important because some of the nation’s oldest judges are among the 70 or so who sit in the two courthouses. One, 93-year-old Louis L. Stanton, has come into work almost every day since the pandemic arrived.

“We wanted to protect them. But also, you know, the justice system has to move forward,” Friedland said.

When trials initially halted a year ago as the pandemic hit the city, Chief Judge Colleen McMahon formed a committee to explore how to resume safely. Friedland tapped the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for expertise. Soon, an epidemiologist was on board, along with an air flow expert.

A CDC expert who had designed airtight hospital bed units with HEPA filters helped develop plexiglass booths where witnesses safely sit maskless, preserving a defendant's right to confront an accuser.

McMahon credited the extensive anti-COVID efforts for allowing incarcerated defendants to go to trial first.