Jury trials return in Cass, Berrien counties after seven-month hiatus

CASSOPOLIS – When Cass County jury trials start up again Oct. 20 after a seven-month shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, people can expect to see several changes in how proceedings are conducted.

Cass County Chief Judge Sue Dobrich said Thursday that she and other court staff have been working for months to prepare for the restart of jury trials. Like nearly everything else this year, courts have had to find new ways to do business while still keeping their staff and the public safe.

That has meant developing a regular cleaning regime and buying an ultraviolet machine to kill germs. People entering the court building are screened and have their temperature checked with the use of a thermometer scanner on a tripod.

Court officials here and around the state have also found new ways of conducting court business by using technology and holding hearings remotely. Dobrich noted that the pandemic has forced court officials around the state to be innovative in how they conduct business. Many hearings have been done via Zoom and broadcast to the public on YouTube.

Dobrich said conducting hearings remotely has been beneficial in a number of cases. For example, children are more comfortable communicating from their home via technology than coming into the courthouse in custody or neglect and abuse cases. Lawyers have also found remote proceedings to save on time and travel.

With jury trials, one of the first changes people will see will be in how juries will be selected. She said the county will be partnering with a local church to host off-site jury selection. She said would-be jurors will come to the First Church of God on Spencer Road off of M-60 just past the railroad tracks.

That church has ample parking and enough space in the building to handle the jury assembly and “voir dire” part of jury selection, including security and health safety needs, she noted. This part of the process is when potential jurors with any possible conflict or other reason for not being able to serve are eliminated and the final jury is selected.

Dobrich is hoping to expedite that part of the process.

“There are ways to move it along quicker,” she said. “We can ask everyone if they know any of the parties and kick them out of the jury pool at the start.”

Once a jury is selected, the trial will take place at the Law & Courts Building on M-62 in Cassopolis in either the district court or probate court courtrooms. Those two courtrooms are set up with the needed audio/visual technology to broadcast proceedings on the court’s YouTube channel, she said.

“We’re going to give it a try,” she said. “We’re learning more and more as time goes on. I’ve watched some of the trials that have taken place in other counties. We’re all learning from each other.”

The courtrooms themselves will be set up differently due to COVID restrictions. Dobrich reported that plexiglass partitions have been put up between the witness stand, the judge and the court recorder. Social distancing will be observed and allow for only six jurors in the jury box with the rest of the jurors in other parts of the courtroom.

Access to the courtroom will be limited during the trial to just the parties and the jurors.

“We’re not having any spectators to keep the numbers down,” she said. “Everyone in the courtroom will have to wear face coverings.”

Overall, she said the pandemic has been a learning experience for everyone in the Law & Courts Building, where two people recently tested positive and were quarantined. Everyone is once again healthy and safety protocols continue to be followed and updated.

The Michigan Supreme Court provided local courts with a four-phase court reopening plan to follow earlier this year. Berrien County has entered the third phase, which is the last one before full reopening. Cass County is still in the second phase due to a recent uptick in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Dobrich said Cass County has seen a spike in cases in recent weeks with a hot spot or two around the county. Cass is also affected by its proximity to the Indiana border, which have also seen upticks in cases.

“Thirty-four percent of our residents work in Elkhart,” she said. “We also depend more on Indiana hospitals, which are full, than Berrien County does.”

 

Berrien County

Berrien County Trial Court Administrator Carrie Smietanka-Haney reported that Berrien County courts as of Oct. 5 are in phase three as COVID-19 cases are steady without a marked uptick. The third phase means additional access to in-person services or proceedings, but it does not mean a full reopening of the court to public access.

For example, there can now be walk-in arraignments and people can come in to file paperwork. People can also make appointments to meet with staff in non-court offices in the two courthouses including the Self-Help Legal Resource Center. People coming into the courthouses must wear face coverings and complete a health screening.

Smietanka-Haney said Berrien County has been holding jury trials since mid-August with jury trials livestreamed to the trial court’s YouTube page. The county is using the north end of the Niles courthouse for jury selection for larger jury pools. Inside courtrooms, jurors are separated by distance and plexiglass in the jury box and around the courtroom.

People can learn more about how both county courts are handling COVID on their websites. The Cass County courts’ website is casscourtsmi.org. The Berrien County courts’ website is berriencounty.org/1058/Trial-Court.

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