ALPENA — Jury summons have hit mailboxes in Alpena County as courts resume jury trials in Northeast Michigan.
Felony trials at Alpena’s 26th Circuit Court scheduled for this week didn’t materialize, but a six-member jury heard a domestic violence case in the 88th District Court Thursday morning — the first jury trial in that courtroom since summer.
The last Alpena County felony jury trial ended one year ago Thursday, days before the courts were closed to in-person hearings by the pandemic.
A backlog of trials postponed by the pandemic will require a rigorous court schedule in coming months, court officials say.
At Thursday’s trial, jurors wore masks and were spaced across one end of the courtroom, including two jurors outside the jury box.
Plexiglass shields hung in front of the judge, court recorder, and witnesses. Clear tabletop walls separated the paperwork of court participants seated at tables, although not the participants themselves.
Judge Benjamin Bolser, presiding in place of 88th District Court Judge Thomas LaCross, told Thursday’s jury it could choose between deliberating in a nearby jury room or, if uncomfortable with that smaller space, using the entire courtroom for deliberations while other participants cleared out.
Another jury trial is scheduled next week in the 26th Circuit Court, at the Alpena County Courthouse.
There, dividers between chairs will allow the full jury to be seated in the jury box, although the two seats closest to the witness stand will be left empty so witnesses can remove their masks, according to Alpena County Prosecutor Cynthia Muszynski.
Only 30 jurors will be called to that courtroom at a time to allow for distancing in the gallery, according to Court Administrator Marcia Burns.
Some jurors will, undoubtedly, feel anxiety about their health, Muszynski said. Prospective jurors will be permitted to express any discomfort as part of the jury selection process, she said.
Some Michigan counties, in a nod to safety, are conducting virtual or semi-virtual trials. That strategy, while reducing the health risk to jurors, stands in the way of the defendant’s right to a representative jury, Muszynski said.
Logistics of the return to jury trials must take into consideration not only the safety of the jury, but also the constitutional rights of the accused, according to defense attorneys Matt Wojda and Alan Curtis.
Masks make it hard to read the faces of witnesses and jurors, keeping attorneys from knowing if their points are landing home, Wojda said.
Juries concerned about their health or distracted by safety measures may not give witnesses their entire attention, Curtis said, and witnesses with health concerns may be distracted during testimony or even refuse to testify.
The complications of the resumption of jury trials can’t mean they don’t go forward, though, the defense attorneys said.
“At some point, you need to do it,” Wojda said. “At some point, you need to move on and start moving these dockets forward.”
No jury trials have been held in Presque Isle County courtrooms since courts reopened, although a felony trial was held offsite at a township hall in August. Another felony trial, also to be held offsite, is scheduled to begin jury selection April 13.
In Montmorency County, a jury considered arguments in a District Court trial over the summer. Another trial is scheduled in that courtroom next week, and a felony trial in the county’s 26th Circuit Court begins April 7.
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