Cass County jury trials to restart

CASSOPOLIS – With the number of COVID cases trending downward and many pandemic restrictions lifting, Cass County court officials are again looking to restart jury trials. Jury trials have been on hold for more than a year in the county.

Cass County Chief Judge Sue Dobrich said Thursday that jury trials are scheduled to start up again next week. This marks the third time the county has tried to restart jury trials, two prior attempts last fall and this spring didn’t get off the ground as COVID cases spiked each time.

While things may change in coming weeks and months, jury trials will still have a number of restrictions in place in light of the ongoing pandemic. For example, jurors will be spaced around the courtroom, and everyone will still have to wear masks and social distance in the courtroom and other public places in the building, she said.

Meanwhile, Dobrich said the Law and Courts Building is opening back up after being locked to the public since March 2020. She said she and other court officials are waiting for official word from the State Court Administrative Office to officially reopen the building to the public.

State court officials are requiring counties to have seven days of COVID positivity rates below five percent in order to open up and she said the county has achieved that level. The county is also waiting for official word that they can move to phase three of the Michigan Supreme Court’s return to full capacity guide.

The return to full capacity guide outlines a total of four phases with the fourth phase being a return to normal with everything open. Phase three still has some restrictions in place but allows for more people to come into the courthouse for business.

Although the public will now have in-person access to the court building and to many proceedings, Dobrich said she expects many hearings to continue to be handled remotely and the court’s YouTube channel still be available to the public.

“We will continue to do a lot of civil proceedings and arraignments by Zoom,” she said. “I think Zoom is here to stay. It’s very effective with lawyers not having to travel as much for short motion hearings and being able to get more things done.”

She said giving the public remote access to court proceedings has also meant that more people watching proceedings. For Cass County, it’s also meant technology upgrades in the court building so that all three courtrooms now have the technology to handle remote proceedings when necessary. Previously, the circuit courtroom lacked that equipment.

Meanwhile, a major criminal case still on the docket has a new jury trial start date. The trial of former Southwestern Michigan College instructor George Field is scheduled to start July 28 in Cass County Circuit Court.

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 case has been delayed a number of times, including to have a new judge appointed to handle it after Cass Circuit Judge Mark Herman recused himself. Allegan Circuit Judge Roberts Kengis will preside over the trial.

In Berrien County, court officials have resumed holding jury trials after a month pause in May. They first held jury trials last fall and then again in March and April before pausing them in May. Berrien County courts have been in phase three of the four-phase state plan for several months.

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