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Jury trials not expected to begin again for months

Marathon County Courthouse continues to work on plans to get trials going again
Published: Aug. 26, 2020 at 7:40 PM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - Jury trials have been put on hold for the last five months for most counties in Wisconsin, including Marathon County and the proceedings are not expected to return for months.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Drake Roggensack issued administrative orders in March and created a COVID-19 task force to create thresholds in order for circuit courts to open safely; holding jury trials is one of the last steps. Currently, Marathon County and many other courts have gotten through phases one and two, which open up the courthouse to the public for in-person proceedings.

“In July, we were able to have live people in the courtrooms, which was, you know, you take that for granted when you don’t have anybody live in your courtrooms for such a long time,” Marathon County Circuit Court Judge Michael Moran said.

Numerous safety measures including requiring people to wear masks, having handwashing stations throughout the building, sanitizing surfaces after each use, and conducting as many proceedings virtually when possible are required to allow courthouses to open back up to normal business.

“We try to look at safety as our main concern,” Judge Moran said, “but you also have to look at due process. You have to have fair hearings that are open to the public and also follow the constitutional rights that everyone has when they’re in the courtroom.”

Jury trials have their own section in the chief justice’s report and require even more safety planning and changes. Judge Moran said they are working on those plans constantly so they can get trials back up and running as soon as possible while doing so safely. In the meantime, all trials have to wait.

“I’ve had victims that are very much fine with, their offender is still in custody. They know that they’re safe and they’re protected,” Pam Steffen-Karls, the victim-witness program coordinator for the Marathon County District Attorney’s Office said. “And then we have other situations where victims are ready for their cases to be done, they’ve been dealing with it for a long time.”

NewsChannel 7 reached out to the State Public Defender’s Office, but requests for an interview were not returned. Judge Moran, however, said he knows some defendants are also frustrated.

“They’re innocent until proven guilty,” he said. “They have a right to have their trial within a period of time. So, it’s frustrating for defense attorneys. I’m sure it’s very frustrating for people who are incarcerated, but I can assure you we are working as hard as we can to get this done as soon as possible.”

He said part of having a fair trial is having the ability to assess the credibility of the people who take the stand.

“You want to be able to look that person in the eye and be able to assess whether they’re telling the truth or not,” he explained.

That is hard to do when someone is wearing a mask or is appearing virtually, looking through a camera instead of directly to a room, he continued.

“It’s my position that trials really should be, if they’re-- if we can manage to do it, should be live,” he stated.

Jurors typically sit in a juror box together and meet in a room together to deliberate all in close proximity to each other. Jurors also can include people with health issues, people who are older, and others at higher risk of contracting severe symptoms to COVID-19.

The Marathon County Courthouse was built in the 1950s and has several small courtrooms that are oddly shaped. Judge Moran said there are two, maybe three courtrooms that would be able to hold a jury trial, but they cannot do so as they are structured today. He continued, they may have to rearrange everything, including taking “all of the chairs out of the jury box.”

Judge Moran said they have had to think about everything from air exchanges in the courtrooms to where jury selection can safely happen, which he said they are looking at sites not at the courthouse as potential options, which is allowed in the chief justice’s report. Then there are the plans for the worst-case scenario.

“It’s a large project to try to have a month-long trial because what if a juror gets sick? How many alternates do you need in a jury that’s a two-week jury or a month-long jury and how do you make sure that your jury is comprised of people that are really community members of their peers? I mean, there’s a lot of considerations that we’re-- we’re trying to consider all of the different variables to get this right,” he explained. “We want to get it right. When you do a trial you’ve got to get it right or it’s a mistrial and you try everything all over again.”

He is hoping they will be able to have a plan ready to begin small, one-to-two day trials at the end of October or beginning of November, but it is dependent on the virus’ impacts. Likely, they will be sending out questionnaires to jurors about COVID-19 concerns at that point. He said once trials get going, they will prioritize those who have not waived their right to a speedy trial as well as trials that have held people in jail the longest.

“We want to make sure that the public has confidence in the safety that they can come here and that they are not distracted by the virus, but they are actually listening intently to the testimony,” he urged.

NewsChannel 7 also asked about the impact virtual proceedings have had on the court processes that are continuing. Judge Moran said for those who do not have access to Zoom or a device that will allow them to virtually appear, they have made other arraignments.

Steffen-Karls stated that for some of the victims she works with, the ability to appear virtually has been a huge benefit.

“We have victims in certain cases that are all over the United States and now with the courtrooms being hooked up with Zoom and having hearings that are occurring on Zoom, it has been, in some cases, easier for victims to appear and attend,” she explained. “Victims don’t have to take a half a day off of work to come in for a hearing or take vacation time or, you know, that sort of thing.”

This has been especially crucial as Marcy’s Law passed during the pandemic. It gives victims more right during court proceedings, including having the ability to comment during proceedings they otherwise would not have been able to make a comment on and be part of the scheduling of court proceedings so they can attend if they choose.

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