Trial courts to resume in Cass County first time since pandemic began

CASS COUNTY — Area courts are once again making plans to start holding jury trials. Jury trials have been in large part put on hold since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions put in place just over a year ago.

Berrien County Trial Court officials were able to hold some trials last fall before COVID numbers rose again and caused the two courthouses in Niles and St. Joseph to re-impose restrictions and closures. Cass County court officials prepared to start holding trials last fall, but never actually had any before restrictions were once again imposed.

Cass County Chief Judge Sue Dobrich said the court had been scheduled to start up jury trials last October after making a number of changes in how the trials would be conducted. Most of those changes are still in place now, although jury selection will take place at the Law & Courts Building on M-62 rather than at another location.

Judge Dobrich said the courts had initially planned to use a local church to handle the jury assembly and voir dire part of the jury selection process in order to meet social distancing guidelines but could not resolve the technology issues of connecting that building to the courthouse.

“We will use the probate courtroom for jury selection,” she said.

In one change from last fall, trials will be held in the Circuit Court courtroom as it has been now equipped with the audio/visual technology needed to broadcast trials and other proceedings on the court’s YouTube channel. Previously, only the district and probate courts were equipped with that technology.

Once a jury is selected, the protocols developed last fall will be put in place. Jurors will be spaced out around the courtroom, with some sitting in the jury box and others spaced out in the gallery section. Plexiglass partitions have been put up between the witness stand, the judge and the court recorder.

Everyone in the courtroom will be required to wear masks, although exceptions will be made for the attorneys and the witnesses. The attorneys will be allowed to take off their masks to ask questions and witnesses will not wear masks so jurors will be able to see the witnesses’ faces and the court recorder can record their testimony.

Witnesses will stay in the prosecutor’s office until called to testify, and jury deliberations will take place inside the probate courtroom. The latter move is being done because the jury room is too small to allow for social distancing.

Judge Dobrich said the first jury trial will start April 12 and will be that of former Southwestern Michigan College instructor George Field. Field is accused of criminal sexual conduct, perjury and insurance fraud dating back as far as 2015. He was charged in the fall of 2017, shortly after he was fired by SMC.

The Field trial has been delayed a number of times even before the pandemic. One of the trial delays in the Field case came after Cass Circuit Judge Mark Herman recused himself because he had been on the board of directors of the organization where Field was employed as a counselor.

Dobrich said Allegan Circuit Judge Roberts Kengis will preside over the trial, which will take place in Cassopolis. She noted that he has already conducted trials in his home county during the pandemic, which should be a help as Cass County starts holding them. Judge Kengis was expected to tour the circuit courtroom this week in advance of the trial start.

Dobrich hopes more cases will be resolved as actual trial dates are set.

“Criminal trials will be the priority, especially if the defendant is in jail,” she said. “We hope there will be more case resolutions once trial dates are set so we can get some cases cleaned up.”

Even with the pandemic delays, she said there is not that much of a case backup in some areas. “A lot of things are up to date in civil, abuse and neglect and probate cases,” she said.

She expects some of the changes instituted over the last year to continue, although people are anxious to get back to “face to face” proceedings. Allowing parties and expert witnesses to appear remotely has saved time and travel, as well as allowing pleadings to be filed electronically.

“There have been a ton of improvements we’ve been able to do because of Zoom,” she said. “Attorneys from Oakland and Wayne counties don’t have to travel here for motion hearings, and I don’t have to travel to Lansing for meetings like I did. It saves a ton of travel and it’s convenient.”

While Cass County remains in phase two of the state’s four-phase court reopening plan, it can conduct jury trials with permission from the state. Berrien County is in phase three of its reopening plan and can conduct jury trials without getting state permission.

Trial Court Administrator Carrie Smietanka-Haney said adjustments and changes put in place last fall remain in place as the county has restarted jury trials. Jury selection is being done at both the Niles and St. Joseph courthouses with larger jury pools gathering in the north end of the Niles courthouse.

Once jurors are selected, they will be spaced around the courtroom with some in the jury box separated by plexiglass partitions. Plexiglass will also be placed between the witness and the judge. Jurors have to wear masks while witnesses will be given a face shield to wear when they testifying so jurors can see their expressions, she said.

Both counties are providing the public with the opportunity to watch trials remotely via the courts’ respctive YouTube channels. The Berrien County information can be found on the berriencounty.org Trial Court page, while people can find the Cass County link on the casscourtsmi.org website.

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