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Conference room converted into courtroom as jury trials return to Kent County

Circuit court jury trials were suspended in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, creating a backlog of criminal defendants who are waiting for their day in court.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — A fifth-floor conference room at the Kent County Courthouse has been converted into a courtroom to begin handing the backlog of defendants awaiting trial on felony cases.

“We have a tremendous backlog right now; we haven’t had a trial in circuit court since March,’’ Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker said.

Kent County Chief Circuit Court Judge Mark Trusock has been overseeing conversion of the conference room. 

Factors that needed to be considered – from seating to sanitation, was staggering.

“If somebody comes to sit in a chair and they get excused during jury selection, who cleans that chair? We had to address all those issues,’’ Trusock said.

With social distancing rules in place, traditional courtrooms in the 12-story building are not large enough to accommodate the number of people involved in a circuit court jury trial.  

Trial for a man charged with felonious assault was supposed to begin on Monday, July 13, but was put on hold because of an increase in COVID-19 cases in Kent County.

“We had 40 to 50 people who had committed that they would come in this week for jury selection,’’ Trusock said. “So everything was set to go and then our numbers were just too bad to support us proceeding with the trial.’’

Kent County worked with the State Court Administrative Office to get trials up and running.  Trusock said on July 10, he got word from Lansing that the felonious assault trial had to be cancelled. 

“They just didn’t feel it was appropriate for us to do it, so we canceled,’’ he said.

Once state officials give the green light, Trusock said trials will get underway.

Courts started limiting public access and putting cases on hold back in March as the coronavirus pandemic began to worsen. Status conferences, motion hearings and other court business has been conducted electronically.

But holding a criminal jury trial remotely raises legal issues, including the right of the defendant to face their accuser.

“It’s really difficult to do trials via Zoom,’’ defense attorney Jeffery Crampton said. “You need to be in the same room as the person so you can get their facial expressions and see what else is going on around them. And there’s a constitutional right to confront the witnesses against you.’’

As it stands, trials will run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. A different judge will use the converted conference room each week. Dockets will be cleared so the judge only has the trial to worry about. Trusock said that will help expedite matters.

Because of distance requirements, moving 12 jurors and two alternates and keeping them six feet apart will take more time. They can’t all ride on the elevator together, for instance.  They have to be separated during breaks. 

And when a matter needs to be discussed outside the presence of the jury, moving them in and out of the courtroom will take more time.

“We’ve spent almost three months working to figure this all out,’’ Trusock said. “I’m very lucky to be surrounded by an outstanding staff and administration. They’re the ones who have come up with most of the very good ideas on a lot of these issues.’’

The legal community has been waiting for trials to be resume after the Michigan Supreme Court put them on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Supreme Court in late June issued administrative orders addressing a gradual return to jury trials.

The plan put together for Kent County was well-received by the State Court Administrative Office, Trusock said. 

Indeed, he’s been asked to provide pointers to other Michigan judges on how to prepare a courtroom for trial, based on what was learned in Kent County.

“I was asked to run a webinar for the judges in the state to try and share some of the things that we’ve come up with,’’ Trusock said.

It’s been a daunting process, to be sure.

“This has been a moving target,’’ Trusock said. “And every time we think we have something figured out, the rules of the game change. We’re trying to do our very best and provide justice to everyone involved.’’

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