CORINTH • When Alcorn County Circuit Court opens Monday morning, it will be in its third alternate location since March.
Officials hope the former Tad’s Pizza restaurant will be their home away from home for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. Previously, they held court spread out at Corinth High School and later at the Crossroads Arena.
“This building not only had a big enough space for the courtroom, it already had all the side rooms,” said Alcorn County Circuit Clerk Crystal Starling. “It was one of the only buildings in all of Alcorn County that suited all our needs. And I looked at a lot of buildings. I think I have been in every available building or warehouse in the county.”
The main courtroom at the Alcorn County Courthouse can only accommodate 24 people when spaced out to insure social distancing. That is plenty of room for routine court proceedings like hearing motions or taking pleas. But for some things, it just is not big enough.
For jury selection, a large pool of potential jurors is called in. So there has to be room to spread out everyone before the numbers are whittled down to the final selections. And for a jury trial, the court needs several rooms in addition to the courtroom.
“The jury room has to be big enough to socially distance 14 jurors (12 jurors and two alternates),” Starling said. “Plus we also need the judge’s chambers and witness rooms. There are a lot of side rooms.”
The process of converting the old pizza restaurant in downtown Corinth into a courthouse started Wednesday afternoon. That’s when they started moving tables, chairs, table cloths and whatever else they might need. Workers must also build the jury box and judge’s bench. Then they have to install microphones and a sound system.
Getting the building ready is just the first step. Officials have to be ready for a myriad of procedures that have to be in place before the court proceedings can start.
“There are a million different things to think about,” Starling said. “It’s all the little things.”
During jury selection, the large pool is brought into the building, then rearranged in a random fashion. In between, every chair has to be wiped down. During a trial, the seats and the microphones in the witness stand have to be sanitized after each witness.
It is a lot of work and it has not gone unnoticed.
“We have been able to do everything we needed to do as far as court proceedings,” said District Attorney John Weddle. “We haven’t had access to all the technology in the regular courtroom but the clerk and her staff have gone out of their way.
“It’s been fairly easy for us because the clerk’s office has done most of the work. The jurors don’t seem to mind. I talked to the last jury we had out at the arena, they were all appreciative of the efforts to make sure everyone was safe.”
The pandemic has created plenty of problems and caused more than a few delays to the normal court schedules. Grand juries had to be postponed or shifted. Some counties haven’t held a jury trial since COVID-19 hit in mid-March. Officials say holding court, even in alternate locations, is key to keeping the wheels of justice moving.
“It’s been an inconvenience, but being able to continue to have court has been huge for the entire district,” Weddle said. “We can’t afford to get behind. If we didn’t have jury trials, I hate to think how far we would be behind schedule.”
Across the seven-county First Circuit District, the grand jury proceedings are still running behind schedule Weddle said. Alcorn County has an advantage there. Starling has been able to use the regular courtroom to space out the 20 members of the grand jury and minimize any delays.