Nine cases related to the 2020 protests in downtown Graham that were to be heard Wednesday in Alamance County district court will be rescheduled after multiple court employees tested positive for COVID-19, prompting the county’s top-ranking judge to cancel criminal court for the remainder of this week.
Alamance County senior resident superior court judge Tom Lambeth, Jr. cited “staffing developments…regarding court operations affected by COVID-19” in announcing Tuesday night that the Judge J.B. Allen, Jr. Court House at 212 West Elm Street in Graham would be closed through Friday.
Lambeth, who as the highest-ranking judicial official in the county also serves as the COVID-19 courts coordinator, said he consulted multiple times with the county health department and his own judicial leadership team before canceling criminal court.
At least five people who had visited the criminal courts building between February 24 and March 3 had subsequently tested positive for COVID-19, based on five separate notices that Alamance County superior court trial coordinator Sharon Boger issued between March 3 and March 5.
“An employee of an agency with offices within the Alamance County judicial facilities has received a positive test result for COVID-19,” Boger stated in the each of the notices, before specifying the date that each employee was last inside the courthouse.
The protest cases were scheduled to be heard in one of two district courtrooms Wednesday; another 144 other cases were also scheduled to be heard in the other district courtroom, based on the court docket. No cases are scheduled to be heard in criminal superior court until Monday.
First appearances in criminal cases that are scheduled for afternoon sessions in district court will continue to be heard, Lambeth said in announcing the closure shortly after 8:00 p.m. Tuesday night. First appearances “are legally required to be handled on a daily basis,” and defendants and/or victims will be required to attend court as scheduled, he said.
Criminal matters that can be handled remotely – by phone, email, or via the WebEx teleconferencing system – will remain unaffected, as well, Lambeth added.
Civil courts to continue operating normally
The criminal courts closure will not affect operations of the civil courts, which will remain open as scheduled for child support, motions, emergency protective orders, and trials in civil district and superior court. Those matters are held in other facilities that are separate from the criminal courts building, Lambeth noted.
Kevin Harrison, the Alamance County assistant district attorney who is handling the protest cases, referred Alamance News reporter Wednesday morning to district attorney Sean Boone for additional information. Harrison sent word to the reporter, via a receptionist for the D.A.’s office, that the nine protest cases would be rescheduled, but the new court dates had not been set yet.
For his part, Boone confirmed for The Alamance News that this marks the second time since statewide restrictions on court operations were lifted in late May 2020 that court has been canceled due to a positive test for COVID-19.
“As best as I can calculate, if you don’t count state-mandated closures, we had one four-day closure last year and one three-day closure this week,” Boone said in a brief interview Wednesday morning.
The clerk’s office inside the Judge J.B. Allen, Jr. Court House will also be closed for the rest of the week.
On Wednesday morning, mini-blinds had been lowered over the windows at both the cashier’s desk and the information desk; and openings in each of the windows (termed “speak holes”) had been covered with white copy paper, each with a smiley face drawn on it.
A jail detention officer who regularly conducts COVID-19 health screenings at the criminal courts building was stationed outside Wednesday morning; he was directing visitors who were coming to pay fines and tickets to the cashier’s office at the Historic Court House up the street in downtown Graham.