Gavel

LEWISBURG — A Lewisburg resident chastised Union-Snyder County President Judge Michael T. Hudock Monday morning for an “irresponsible” jury selection process during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Paulette Onestak, a retired Selinsgrove Area School District science teacher, was summoned for jury selection for the first time on Monday morning and said she was “horrified” to see more than 100 other prospective jurors huddled into the Union County courtroom in Lewisburg without any safety precautions being heeded.

“There had to be more than 100 people. There was no room for social distancing,” said Onestak, who wore a mask though she is fully vaccinated against COVID-19. “I saw only one other (prospective juror) wearing a mask.”

None of the court personnel, including Hudock, were masked and Onestak said no one asked if she was vaccinated.

Neither Hudock nor Union-Snyder Court Administrator Kelly Heeter responded to calls Monday.

The written summons Onestak received from the court indicated there would be about 200 prospective jurors arriving at the courthouse between 8 a.m. and 8:45 a.m. Monday.

Onestak said she was called as a prospective juror for a criminal case and refused to sit with the group of people also summoned from the gallery because they were sitting “shoulder-to-shoulder so they put me in a separate seat on the side.

“I am just appalled. The Delta variant is spreading and COVID cases are rising everywhere,” she said.

Onestak was aware of the specific criminal case she was called for and while speaking with Hudock and other court employees at the bench out of earshot of others, she let the judge know how displeased she was with the situation inside the courtroom.

“I told the judge, ‘This is totally irresponsible. I don’t want to be here,’” she recalled.

Hudock allowed her to leave, she said.

Judge Michael H. Sholley, who oversees court in Snyder County, said he held jury selection in the Middleburg courtroom with about 117 prospective candidates last week.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last summer, jury selection was held in area schools to allow for social distancing, but Sholley said masking and social distancing rules have been relaxed in the courthouses since vaccinations have been widely available.

“We are back to normal,” he said. The courts in Union and Snyder counties now allow all who have been vaccinated to enter the courtrooms without a mask, but no one is asked to prove their vaccination status.

Last week, Sholley said, two prospective jurors did request they be seated in a way to allow for social distancing.

“The vaccination has been available for about six months, so most people who want it have had the opportunity,” he said.

Vaccination rates in both counties is below 45 percent.

“I respect both positions,” Sholley said of the people who choose not to get vaccinated due to the unknown side effects and those who opt to be vaccinated against the potentially deadly virus.

Hours after leaving the courthouse, Onestak, still upset and shaken by the experience, sent a letter to Hudock and the media.

“It is inexcusable, and the mask-less crowding can only help accelerate the spread of COVID,” she wrote. “All of the first responders, doctors, nurses and hospital workers have diligently worked to help with this pandemic. I honor their dedication and lament the totally unnecessary, dangerous and risky situation the potential jurors may have been put in by courthouse employees.”

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