County trials set to resume with aid from school

The 35th Circuit Court house in Corunna is seen in this file photo.

CORUNNA — After more than a four-month hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 35th Circuit Court officials plan to conduct a jury trial starting Aug. 11 — thanks to a collaboration between circuit court staff, the county coordinator and Corunna Public Schools.

“I want the public to know that circuit court is making the call, and it’s up to the members of the community to answer it,” 35th Circuit Court Judge Matthew Stewart said Thursday. “We must have jury trials. It’s part of our tradition. Defendants have the right to a jury trial. We have several that have stayed in jail, and their time to have a trial is long past. We have to get moving again. It will be up to the citizens of Shiawassee County to answer the call to help us out.”

Trials stopped in March when COVID-19 cases in Michigan and the county began increasing. Active, known cases in the county now number fewer than 10 with no hospitalized patients. The state had seen its numbers dwindle to fewer than 100 per day, but that recently has been climbing back above 500.

Stewart, Shiawassee County Coordinator Brian Boggs and Corunna Public Schools Superintendent John Fattal — along with their respective staffs — have set up a system to conduct jury selection in the Corunna High School cafeteria, where space allows for a pool of jurors to practice social distancing.

Masks will be mandatory for everyone in attendance, and bailiffs will conduct temperature checks and searches of everyone entering the cafeteria.

Once jury selection is complete, jurors will be transported back to the courthouse, where the trial will proceed.

Jurors will not sit in the jury box, however.

In order to maintain social distancing in the courtroom, jurors will be seated in the gallery.

Otherwise, the trial will proceed normally, Stewart said. He pointed to mock trials conducted via Zoom that have had mixed results, and wanted to make sure any trial in Shiawassee County would ensure due process.

“We want to ensure everyone has a fair trial,” Stewart added. “Big thanks to Superintendent Fattal and Dr. Boggs. The county has tremendous gratitude for making this happen.”

Boggs said the Shiawassee County Board of Commissioners provided key support in getting trials started once again, along with Fattal and circuit court staff.

“The county board of commissioners wants us to be able to return to normal as much as we think we can,” Boggs said. “This is a great partnership with circuit court and Corunna Public Schools.”

Fattal said Facilities Director Jason Beldyga highlighted several school facilities as they decided what would work best. The cafeteria seemed to make the most sense.

“When Boggs reached out to us, we wanted to be able to help. We can provide a secure environment,” Fattal said. “All I did was turn my people loose.”

Stewart believes Shiawassee County will be the second in the state to conduct a jury trial since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The problem is they’re bottlenecking,” Stewart said, describing the delays of the last several months. “At some point, jury trials will become a normal part of court life. When it does, they have to be taken care of before we can go back to our civil matters and things that don’t require juries. That’s going to be time consuming.

“Circuit court staff are ready for the challenge,” Stewart added. “We’ll follow the experts. We’ll follow the data and the law.”

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