Safety tops list as jury trials resume in Michigan after coronavirus shutdown

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KALAMAZOO, MI – It has been six months since the doors of Michigan courthouses were closed to the public.

Some legal proceedings continued virtually in the midst of the pandemic, such as indictments, probable cause conferences, preliminary hearings, settlement conferences, motion hearings and even some convictions. But jury trials have been suspended due to state restrictions on COVID-19.

As the restrictions slowly began to lift, the state’s county district and circuit courts have been busy preparing for the return of trials to their mostly empty courthouses.

A few, like Kalamazoo County District Court and Barry County Circuit Court, have tried it.

In one of the first lower Michigan cases to be heard since the start of the pandemic, Barry County prosecutor Julie Nakfoor Pratt tried a two-week double homicide case in early August.

“It was a really big deal,” said Nakfoor Pratt. “We had 45 witnesses, 90 exhibits, 35 counts in total and 120 potential jurors.”

To achieve this, she said, jury selection took place at the Barry County Expo Center. And once the case started at the county courthouse, jurors were spread six feet apart, where citizens normally sat to observe instead of using the jurors’ gallery. closer.

Jurors also used the largest space to deliberate. When the exhibits were shown, they were shown on courtroom television instead of being shown to jurors, Nakfoor Pratt said.

Restrictions prevented members of the public – with the exception of a few family members of the victims – from attending the trial. As a result, the case and numerous other court proceedings across the state this summer have been broadcast on YouTube. This method of keeping the court public has its own set of advantages and disadvantages, Nakfoor Pratt said.

Among the downsides, she said, is that anyone can see the trial. While she is wholeheartedly in favor of courtrooms being open to all members of the public, she said a double homicide trial – with graphic evidence shown – wasn’t something that she would invite her 10-year-old to see.

“I would prefer that a code be given to those who ask for it specifically for a case,” said Nakfoor Pratt, adding that there is also a concern for people who register public proceedings online that this would not be. authorized in court.

To show creativity

Barry County is not alone in using alternate locations for jury selection.

Bay County judges have reached an agreement with DoubleTree by Hilton of Bay City to conduct jury selection in the hotel’s ballroom, which can safely accommodate more than 90 people.

The first jury selection trial is scheduled to begin in Bay County the week of September 22, Bay County Circuit Judge Joseph K. Sheeran told MLive.

Related: Ballroom jury selected from new plans to resume trials in Saginaw and Bay counties

In Saginaw County, where trials have yet to resume, proceedings will also take place off-site at The Dow Events Center, Circuit Chief Justice Darnell Jackson said.

“We want the courts to be creative,” said John Nevin, director of communications at the Michigan Supreme Court. “The bottom line is that these jury trials must go ahead; that’s how our justice system works.

“Even though there aren’t many – maybe 3,000 a year out of 3 million proceedings – the fact that there can be a trial is what drives a lot of the decision-making. It is therefore important to know that there could still be a trial.

Nevin said the state ran a pilot project in late April / early May with prosecutors and judges from across the state, in which they conducted a mock trial entirely remotely. As part of it, they enlisted around 60 people to follow the proceedings and serve as an advisory group, he said.

“There was a lot of concern, but the process was really constructive and helped define how this is going to work,” Nevin said. “It’s going to be a little different in each county.

“The only part that seemed feasible (from a distance) was the jury selection.”

While no court Nevin is aware of has looked to remote jury selection, he has heard of everything from high school gyms and auditoriums to places like the Barry County Expo Center being used as alternatives.

The need for creativity doesn’t end with courtroom setup and jury selection, Nakfoor Pratt said.

During the recent trial she continued, she said, jurors had an entire half-hallway marked out for their use outside the courtroom, as well as access to their own rooms. bath.

In addition to separating jurors during breaks, the hallway also proved useful, she said, when motions needed to be brought before the judge. As the courtroom seats served as the jury’s deliberation room, jurors had to be sent out into the hallway for motions to be presented, she said.

“You have to be careful with COVID for sure,” she said. “But when you have a CSC, a homicide, a theft, you really have to do it in person.”

Van Buren County Prosecutor Michael Bedford has said that while he understands COVID-19 concerns among potential jurors – for a multitude of reasons, these more serious cases shouldn’t wait too long before d ‘to be judged.

One of those reasons, he said, is that there are a lot of dangerous people in prison while the trials start.

“Barry County has already proven it can be done,” Bedford said. “We have to move them forward. “

Alleviate concerns

To help alleviate coronavirus concerns for jurors, lawyers and others, courts statewide are enforcing social distancing, using plexiglass partitions and requiring masks to be worn.

Kalamazoo County held its first district court trial last week, but is waiting until the first week of October to begin circuit court proceedings, Kalamazoo County District Attorney Jeff Getting said. .

“We’ve given this a lot of thought,” Getting said. “We make sure to do this in a way that takes into account all the necessary public safety precautions to be able to have the necessary number of people in the courtroom.”

District trials only require a jury of six and usually take place in less than a day, while criminal cases require juries of 12 and last for several days.

In preparation for some of the larger trials, Getting said, not only will larger courtrooms be used, but these trials will also be scheduled at times when there will be fewer people in the courthouse for others. procedures.

The only people who will be allowed into the courtroom, he said, will be lawyers, jurors, the judge, court staff, witnesses and the accused. The proceedings, as they were with other types of hearings during the pandemic, will continue to be streamed online.

The jury summons have already been sent to Kalamazoo County. But anyone receiving the summons who is concerned about their health, is immunocompromised, or lives with someone who has an opportunity to contact the court and explain their situation.

While Michigan courts are not required to do so, Nevin said, Kalamazoo County 8th District and 9th Circuit courts have said their jury services department is ready to grant apologies and postponements to potential jurors.

“Throughout our planning process, our top priority has been, and will continue to be, ensuring the health and safety of jurors, judges, parties, witnesses, lawyers and court staff, in courthouses, ”a joint press release from the two Kalamazoo courts said.

To promote safety, Kalamazoo County Courts are reducing the number of jurors summoned to appear, staggering reporting deadlines, and moving jurors between waiting areas and courtrooms with seamless entry and exit. contact, the statement said.

Disposable seat covers will also be provided in jury waiting areas and daily COVID-19 screenings will be performed. Social distancing floor markings will be placed throughout the courthouse, as will hand sanitizing stations. The furniture is also reorganized in all areas to allow social distancing.

“It takes a lot of coordination,” said Nakfoor Pratt. “Everyone just needs to be ready to listen and be open to new ideas because I just can’t see going back to the old way just yet. “

Virtual visualization

Although jury trials did not take place virtually – with the exception of online streams for viewers – there was no shortage of online hours recorded by courts on other proceedings, Nevin said. .

State courts have now passed one million hours of online hearings since the end of March, according to a press release from the State Court Administrative Office on September 17. Statewide, nearly 1,000 judges and other court officials use state-provided Zoom licenses. Administrative office of the Court.

“I firmly believe that the more people have access to court proceedings, records and case data, the more they have confidence in our justice system and are willing to abide by court orders,” said Bridget M. McCormack, Judge Chief of the State of Michigan.

“Getting 1,000,000 hearing hours in less than six months is nothing short of remarkable. At the same time, we build trust by ensuring that these procedures can be seen by the public. “

The Michigan State Supreme Court has also launched a virtual courtroom directory that allows the public to click on a map to find their court and watch. Courts are required to either stream the proceedings live on YouTube or post a video of these proceedings immediately after the event.

Since its launch in May, the directory has been used by the public more than 80,000 times, and trial court YouTube pages have more than 30,000 subscribers, the statement said.

“The system continued to function,” Getting said. “We continued to authorize cases and negotiate resolutions, register convictions and sentences. Everything except hardships. And we are ready to launch them.

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