Federal jury trials set to resume in Minnesota

Safety barriers in a courtroom
Judge John Tunheim's federal courtroom in Minneapolis now includes plexiglass barriers in the jury box along with other COVID-19 safety provisions. A courtroom in the St. Paul federal courthouse is outfitted similarly.
Photo courtesy of U.S. District Court

Updated: Sept. 17

After months of closed federal courtrooms in Minnesota due to COVID-19, federal jury trials are set to resume on Monday.

The last time a defendant faced a federal jury in Minnesota was in early February, when jurors convicted 50-year-old Dwight Frederick Barnes of distributing methamphetamine. 

Monday’s case, in which Cristino Martinez Padilla faces methamphetamine charges, will unfold with a range of safety precautions in a St. Paul courtroom. Plexiglass panels have been erected between juror seats, and potential jurors have been screened for health risks.

"If they have underlying medical conditions, or if they're living with an older person, or they have concerns, we're really just excusing them before they even have to come to the courthouse,” said Chief U.S. District Judge John Tunheim. 

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Padilla’s trial is expected to take three days. Tunheim said it will help court staff prepare for the much longer trial in November of Michael Hari, the alleged mastermind of the 2017 firebombing of a Bloomington mosque.

Federal courts here have held nontrial proceedings remotely during the COVID-19 shutdown. Trials at the federal level here are relatively rare, so there isn’t a large backlog of cases.

Minnesota state courts resumed trials earlier this year. In early April, the state courts suspended jury trials and shifted other hearings to remote. Four counties, including Hennepin and Ramsey, began holding jury trials in criminal cases in June, and jury trials have since expanded to other counties.

Some jury trials in state civil cases resumed this month. Safety measures in state courts may vary from what is being done in federal courts; find more information here.

Correction (Sept. 17, 2020): A previous version of this story contained incorrect information about the status of state jury trials in civil cases.