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Order On The Dance Floor: Mass. Courts Bring Jury Trials To Ballrooms Due To COVID04:32
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A court officer walks down the hallway to retrieve alternate jury members waiting in the “Venetian” function room for a trial case involving a vehicular homicide at Lombardo’s in Randolph. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A court officer walks down the hallway to retrieve alternate jury members waiting in the “Venetian” function room for a trial case involving a vehicular homicide at Lombardo’s in Randolph. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Of all the events that could be held at Lombardo's function hall in Randolph, a court trial is a new one.

The popular wedding and prom venue is one of seven satellite court locations the Massachusetts Trial Court is using to resume jury trials quickly while accommodating pandemic-related concerns about ventilation and physical distancing in many of the state's aging courthouses. Six-person jury trials began at the alternate locations this month.

Except for the metal detectors, the lobby at Lombardo's isn't dramatically altered. Up a large winding staircase, under a massive chandelier, just past the grand piano are ballrooms filled with lawyers, court officers, a judge and a jury.

Quincy District Court Judge Mark Coven enters the courtroom he will preside over at Lombardo’s function hall in Randolph. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Quincy District Court Judge Mark Coven enters the courtroom he will preside over at Lombardo’s function hall in Randolph. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Several court officers try to project the decorum of a courtroom, making announcements about when to be seated and when court is in recess.

"Whether it's in this building or the courthouse in Massachusetts, there was not much different except for the environment and the chandelier," says Quincy District Court Judge Mark Coven, who presided over a motor vehicle homicide trial at Lombardo's last week.

Judge Coven says the courts, along with the defense and prosecution, prioritized cases for trial.

"I think we've got to look at the seriousness of the crimes because they've been pending for some time, and there's obviously deaths involved and people have a right to bring their cases to trial," Coven says.

Even with the makeshift courtrooms, only a limited number of trials are being held to start to chip away at an estimated backlog of 3,700 cases that were put off because of the pandemic. Many states are grappling with how to hold trials while protecting people from the virus. Jury trials are now resuming in all but six states.

Even with the makeshift courtrooms, only a limited number of trials are being held to start to chip away at an estimated backlog of 3,700 cases that were put off because of the pandemic.

Norfolk County District Attorney Mike Morrissey, whose office prosecuted the motor vehicle homicide case, says with 20 murder trials pending in his county alone, and ventilation problems in his main courthouse, something had to be done.

"There's probably 220 people in the House of Correction that are awaiting trial right now," Morrissey explains. "Those are just the people locked up. Then, there's hundreds of other cases that we still have in the district court and a lot of victims that are looking for their day in court. And so it's important that we move ahead."

A Norfolk District court case resumes in a function hall at Lombardo’s in Randolph. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A Norfolk District court case resumes in a function hall at Lombardo’s in Randolph. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Inside the repurposed ballroom, Judge Coven sits on a raised platform in the front of the room, flanked by U.S. and state flags. The defense and prosecution attorneys are at tables facing the judge. The witness stand is a wooden podium in the middle of room — what might have been the dance floor — facing jurors, who sit on banquet chairs, appropriately spaced apart. Everything is surrounded by plexiglass.

"Some of the feedback I'm getting from people is that they would just as soon try cases here than they would in some of the courthouses in our county," Morrissey says.

Defense attorney Joseph Simons says the biggest difference in a trial at an alternate site is in the preparation. He says there have been several meetings to make sure the trial would go forward as scheduled. This motor vehicle homicide trial has been put off for more than a year as constitutional speedy trial considerations have been largely exempted because of the pandemic.

"We've had a lot of clients just waiting for their day in court with the deadlines just getting pushed back and pushed back," Simons says. "So yeah, it's kind of weird, but it feels good. It feels like we're getting back on track."

"We've had a lot of clients just waiting for their day in court with the deadlines just getting pushed back and pushed back. So yeah, it's kind of weird, but it feels good. It feels like we're getting back on track."

Joseph Simons, a defense attorney

After deliberating for almost a day in a nearby ballroom, the jury makes its decision. As in a courtroom, a court officer escorts them in to announce the verdict.

"Not guilty," the jury forewoman announces.

At the not guilty verdict, the defendant reacts emotionally, bracing himself with his hands on the table in front of him. Simons reaches over plexiglass to touch his client's shoulder. Judge Coven thanks the jurors and everyone involved for what he calls a "successful experiment."

"This was an important case because we're just beginning the resumption of jury trials after a year of not doing jury trials," Coven tells the jury. "Many people have been waiting — not just defendants, but families and victims. So you've enabled us to do this in a way that shows us that it can be done, even under difficult circumstances."

DA Morrissey says these trials help pave the way for more complicated cases — ones with bigger juries, more witnesses and tighter security to try those incarcerated. Those people will be held in a retrofitted adjoining nightclub.

Signs for the Norfolk County Court in the entrance of Lombardo’s in Randolph. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Signs for the Norfolk County Court in the entrance of Lombardo’s in Randolph. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

"You get into the rhythm of picking a jury and how to handle a jury, how to a segregate a jury, how to keep people safe," Morrissey says, "and then I assume that they'll be ready to deal with someone in a lockup situation within the coming week or two."

Massachusetts is paying more than $360,000 to hold trials at Lombardo's for the next four months. The Trial Court also has a three-and-a-half-month lease with the Cape Codder Resort & Spa in Hyannis for $170,323; and one-year leases with the Holiday Inn in Pittsfield for $854,100, the former Eastfield Mall Cinemas site in Springfield for $715,800 and a former courthouse in Greenfield for $1,049,314. Some space is also being used at the federal court house in Boston for Suffolk County jury trials.

Lombardo's General Manager Dave Lombardo says the arrangement helps his business, which has been hurt by the pandemic.

"It's a win-win for everyone," Lombardo says. "They're able to get some cases through and work on their backlog. And we were able to get some of our associates back to work. So it was a match that worked out for everybody, and we're really happy with it."

As to how much of a dent these new venues might make in the backlog and whether there's a greater risk of appeals, well, as they say, the jury is still out.

This segment aired on April 30, 2021.

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Deborah Becker Twitter Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.

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