Plastic tarps and hockey-style penalty benches: What jury trials will look like in Michigan courtrooms
Chairs spaced 6 feet apart, plastic sheeting and face masks.
These are some of the coronavirus precautions the world is used to now.
In Michigan courtrooms, additional COVID-19 security measures are also being put in place to try to restart jury trials and begin to overcome the huge backlog of criminal cases. Courts are careful to protect potential jurors from COVID-19.
From hockey-style penalty benches for jurors to plexiglass mounted on witness benches, courtrooms will be very different as jury trials slowly begin to unfold in a few counties.
With few exceptions, jury trials have been suspended for almost a year amid the coronavirus pandemic. Trials resume as the positivity rate for COVID-19 declines and defendants continue to sit in jail or on bail with a GPS ankle strap.
In Ottawa County, plastic sheeting and protective screens are common inside courtrooms officials plan to use when they resume holding jury trials. In Kent County, the jury bench is fitted with plexiglass around each juror’s chair to resemble the penalty benches in a hockey arena.
The county of Charlevoix, which held its first trial in months last week, used a nearby old school to provide more space for jury selection.
Saginaw County went further this week in hopes of ensuring the safety of jury, witnesses, defendants, lawyers and court staff. Rather than having the trial run in a relatively small traditional courtroom, Saginaw County moved the trial inside the Dow Event Center.
Following the county’s first trial, Charlevoix County Assistant Prosecutor, Mary Farrell, considered it a success.
Between the security measures and the consideration given to potential jurors, the trial proceeded with the health of those present in mind. Of the 100 potential jurors called, about 40 people were not required to appear for selection because a previous questionnaire showed they were at high risk for COVID-19 or had major concerns, Farrell said.
“We want to keep people safe,” she said. “We don’t want people to get sick because they had to serve as a juror.
“But we also have defendants who need their trials, and we have to move forward at some point. I think it went well. I think it went really well actually.
The disposition of the Charlevoix trial in the midst of the pandemic resulted in six jurors in the jury gallery – instead of the traditional 12 to 14 – one person next to it and the other six spread out where the public usually sat.
Due to the new layout, some jurors were seated directly behind Farrell, which was an uncomfortable experience, she said.
She wasn’t sure the jurors could see her laptop screen, which might contain evidence, and she wasn’t sure they could hear her whisper to the officer sitting next to her .
“I don’t think it’s respectful that my back is to a juror,” Farrell said. “I don’t like the impression it gives.
In addition to ensuring the safety of people, the chosen jury must represent the community.
Farrell said the Charlevoix jury was fairly representative of the community, despite the number of people fired for health issues.
“I think we had a good jury base,” she said. “I think it was pretty diverse in terms of age and about an even number of male and female jurors.”
The court worked with the county health department to determine where to hold the jury selection, as there was not enough space at the Charlevoix courthouse. They held him in a gymnasium at the old Charlevoix elementary school – the school Farrell attended growing up.
Everyone in the courtroom wore a mask throughout the trial, which was held at the courthouse. No one really liked wearing the mask and it made it harder to gauge the jurors’ reactions, Farrell said.
“I like being able to see their reaction and it’s very hard to tell if someone is making faces or anything behind a mask,” Farrell said. “It was a huge inconvenience for me, but it’s nothing anyone can control at this point.”
Farrell isn’t the only one worried. Genesee County Attorney David Leyton has the same question, as does mid-Michigan defense attorney Al Brandt. He is also concerned about reading the faces of witnesses.
“Do you make the witnesses wear masks?” Brandt said. “I want to see the face of this witness. I want a shield on their face, I don’t want a mask.
Jurors’ body language helped Farrell read people during the trial, but that doesn’t solve the problem.
“You can tell a lot by their body language and you can obviously see the eyes rolling and disinterest if they lean back in their chair or have their eyes closed,” she said. “I’ve been doing jury trials for a long time, so you can tell who doesn’t want to be there. You can’t say everything and I’m sure they feel the same. They can’t see our faces, they can’t see the face of the accused.
Charlevoix County has a backlog of jury trials, like all other counties in Michigan. This backlog will take time to clear, as jurors are called and witnesses subpoenaed and schedules are set around busy lawyers, Brandt said.
“In Charlevoix County, we don’t have the numbers for some of the larger counties in the state,” Farrell said. “But still, this defendant doesn’t really care how many cases we have or how many Wayne County cases are.” They care about their case. We are trying to get through.
Wearing masks all day is uncomfortable, the spacing between jurors can make their conversation difficult and the process is different and awkward, but it has to be done, Farrell said.
“I didn’t particularly like the brand new thing,” Farrell said. “I will be happy when we start to stop wearing masks again. But I also appreciate that people have the right to their jury trials. …
“Having to do jury trials this way is just mind-blowing for someone who’s been doing this for a long time. … Unfortunately, we are going to have more like this.