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Jury trials remain rare despite COVID-19 vaccine

Jurors sent home Tuesday after one notifies court of COVID-19 exposure

Despite widespread availability of a COVID-19 vaccine, the ability to conduct jury trials remains tenuous in La Plata County.

On Tuesday, Judge Todd Norvell sent about 30 people in two jury panels home after one potential juror notified the court that he or she had been exposed to a person who tested positive for COVID-19.

The potential juror has been vaccinated against COVID-19 and was not exhibiting any symptoms of the illness. The potential juror told court officials that the person who exposed the potential juror tested positive despite also being vaccinated.

“Everyone is frustrated,” Norvell told jurors. “I would like to get back to normal as soon as possible. But your safety is my paramount responsibility.”

Norvell told jurors he realized they were not in the courtroom voluntarily; they were there performing a required civic duty. He added that he was not willing to keep them in the courtroom under the conditions he was informed about Tuesday afternoon.

Only one jury trial has been completed in La Plata County District Court since the advent of the pandemic in March 2020, and it ended in a mistrial of a Pagosa Springs man who was accused of sexually assaulting a child.

The jurors on the two panels sent home Tuesday were told to call the court Wednesday night and Thursday morning for potential recall to the courthouse on Thursday afternoon to resume an attempt to form a jury.

Tuesday’s proceedings are part of an effort to conduct what would be only the second jury trial in La Plata County District Court since March 2020.

Jurors were being selected to hear a case against Christopher Joe Clark, 43, who faces 18 different counts stemming from his arrest on March 30, 2020, in connection with an assault on a woman in an alley in the 2500 block of Main Avenue.

According to an arrest affidavit, Clark is accused of striking a woman in the alley, choking her, knocking her to the ground and dragging her.

The woman told police she had been sexually assaulted by Clark the previous night in a Durango motel.

Among the charges facing Clark are: sexual assault, second-degree assault, felony menacing, domestic violence enhancement, resisting arrest, violation of bail conditions, violation of a protection order, criminal mischief, obstructing use of a telephone transmission and tampering with a witness.

The juror who notified the court about the COVID-19 exposure said he or she would inform the court of the results of the COVID-19 test.

Tuesday was the fifth day after the potential juror’s exposure, and testing to determine if someone is positive for COVID-19 comes seven to 10 days after exposure. Thursday will be the potential juror’s seventh day after exposure.

Norvell said jurors would be kept informed about all information the court obtained about the COVID-19 status of the juror who had been exposed.

The jurors sent home Tuesday were potentially exposed Monday. The juror did not appear in court Tuesday, but informed the court of the exposure to a COVID-19 positive person five days earlier.

On Tuesday evening, Norvell and attorneys in the case began questioning a third panel of jurors to hear the Clark case. Jury selection with members of the third panel was expected to resume Wednesday morning.

parmijo@durangoherald.com