BOSTON — Court officials say 12-person jury trials can resume across the state starting May 1, as numerous high-profile cases from the Merrimack Valley await trial dates. 

Officials have struggled for a year during the pandemic to balance the rights of defendants awaiting trial with safety concerns.

In Essex County, most pre-trial proceedings have happened at least in part virtually, using teleconference and Zoom equipment to bring lawyers and defendants into the proceedings.

Late last week, the Supreme Judicial Court issued an updated order regarding the operation of Massachusetts state courts and courthouses as the pandemic continues. The new order goes into effect May 1 and replaces a previous order issued Feb. 24.

The new order allows for 12-person jury trials in superior courts and sexually dangerous person cases to resume May 1. 

Also, to maximize the number of jury trials, certain cases that would have typically been heard by 12-person juries can be tried before juries of six people, according to the new order.

Local defendants awaiting Superior Court trial dates include: 

— Hayden Delafuente of Haverhill, charged with the 2017 first degree murder of Matthew Sabatino, 28, a Haverhill native who had been living in Lawrence. 

— Jonathan Thompson, charged with a 2018 incident on Tenney Street in Methuen which police said involved a home invasion and sexual assault. Thompson was indicted by a grand jury for home invasion, two counts of breaking and entering to commit a felony, and larceny of property over $250.

— Miguel Rivera of Lawrence who is held without bail on several charges: murder, rape of a child by force, aggravated rape of a child, indecent assault and battery on a child under age 14, and distribution of a class E substance to a minor. The charges date back to Dec. 15, 2018, when police say his great niece, Precious Wallaces, 11, of Haverhill fell ill at his Lawrence apartment, slipped into a coma and later died in a Boston hospital

"Priority will continue to be given to conducing jury trials in cases where a party is in custody ... as throughout the pandemic, all plans and expectations may be adjusted at any time in the ongoing effort to balance the safety of everyone who enters a courthouse with the fundamental constitutional right to a trial by jury," said a statement released by the state's trial court. 

"We are ready to increase the number and locations of jury trials," said Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Kimberly Budd, "but our courts will need to follow recommended health and safety practices, including mask-wearing, frequent hand washing, physical distancing, and courtroom and courthouse occupancy limitations, for some time to come." 

Courts will continue to conduct business virtually and in-person, and courthouses will continue to be physically open to the public, according to the order. 

Each trial court will continue to post notices to the court system's COVID-19 web page identifying how (virtually or in-person) it is addressing various matters.

The offices of clerks, registers and recorders will continue to be physically open to the public, but will still try to conduct business virtually as much as possible, court officials said. 

Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill. 



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