GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Courtroom juries are very different from what they were before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jury trials in Michigan courts have been closed for almost a year, with a few exceptions. Backlog should take years to disappear in some counties.
In a few counties, trials resume with a drop in the positivity rate for COVID-19 and protections include hockey-style penalty benches for jurors, makeshift barriers made of plastic sheeting and plexiglass mounted on witness benches .
“This is our new normal, like everything else in the world we are dealing with now,” said Kent County Circuit Chief Justice Mark Trusock.
Trusock doesn’t expect courtroom security measures to disappear anytime soon.
“Even if we get collective immunity, there will still be issues that we have to face,” he said.
Safety is the top priority, for the jurors and everyone else, said Ottawa County Circuit Judge Jon Hulsing.
“We attach great importance to security and we want everyone to feel safe as they assess the issues that have been brought to their attention as trier of fact,” he said. “It is important that the jurors feel very comfortable in this process knowing that we have taken just about every measure possible to ensure safety.”
The jurors will be dispersed and isolated from the witnesses, lawyers, defendants and visitors in the gallery.
Over 1,000 cases are part of the large backlog pending jury trials resume in Kent and Ottawa counties.
Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker estimates that 950 criminal cases are awaiting action. While in Ottawa County, prosecutor Lee Fisher estimates the number at around 300 cases.
“Everyone has the right to a jury trial if they want to,” Hulsing said. “It is a constitutional right and this constitutional right is not suspended during pandemics or any other crisis,” he said.
Trusock hopes there will be no setback to the scheduled resumption of trials. He said if this was your son on trial or if your daughter had been murdered or the victim of a terrible crime, you would want jurors who could come and be fair to both sides and deliver a verdict.
“We need jurors who can be attentive, listen to what is going on and not worry too much about sitting here during a trial,” he said.
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