County turns civic center into socially distant compliant courtroom for trial

Published 7:28 am Sunday, June 7, 2020

A city-owned arena in Batesville became a courtroom this week for the first felony criminal jury trial in Mississippi since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

More than 100 prospective jurors answered their summons to appear in court at the Civic Center on June 1, Panola County Circuit Clerk Melissa Meek-Phelps said in a news release.

Prospective jurors maintained social distancing by sitting with five empty seats between them and alternating empty rows. County personnel took temperatures of visitors as they arrived at the arena.

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Hand sanitizer and masks were provided for people entering the building. Anyone who was ill, had health conditions that could put them at risk for COVID-19, was over age 65, a caregiver or had recently performed jury service, was excused.

The Civic Center is a venue for concerts, motorcycle and monster truck shows, rodeos and other entertainment. The Panola County Board of Supervisors on June 1 officially adopted a resolution declaring it the courthouse for the Second Judicial District of Panola County during the coronavirus pandemic.

A jury was selected to hear the trial of Clinton Winters, 44, of Webb, who faced charges of methamphetamine possession. He was found guilty on the afternoon of June 2. Winters remains in custody and will be sentenced at a later date.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the Mississippi Supreme Court has issued a dozen Emergency Administrative Orders balancing the need for courts to continue legal proceedings while limiting the gathering of crowds. An emergency order in mid-March suspended all jury trials into May.

Emergency Administrative Order 11, issued by the Supreme Court on May 7, authorized courts in 41 counties with one or fewer COVID-19 deaths per month to summon jurors to report on or after May 18. Panola County at that time had two reported deaths. Since then, a third death was reported there.