MUSKEGON, MI – After months of being closed to the public, except by appointment only, the Michael E. Kobza Courthouse in Muskegon County opened this week.
In less than three weeks, the courthouse will host something that has only happened twice in the past 12 months during the coronavirus pandemic at the county courthouse – jury trials.
In accordance with state guidelines for COVID-19, those called on to serve on the jury shouldn’t expect things to look like they did before the pandemic, at least not for a while. Muskegon County Deputy Chief Prosecutor Timothy Maat said.
Potential and selected jurors will be screened for COVID at the entrance to the building, will need to maintain appropriate social distancing and wear masks, Maat said. Those called upon to serve, he said, will be expected to serve, but if they have concerns related to COVID, the judges will rule on them on a case-by-case basis, as they would for any other reason given for. explain why a person does not think they can serve.
“The biggest problem is going to be choosing the jury, bringing in 50 to 60 people,” said Maat. “But the members of the jury will meet in different places in the building and once the jurors have been made up, the three judges have assigned their courtrooms so that the jurors are not only seated in the jury boxes, but in the gallery where the public would normally be seated. “
Michigan courts, including those in Muskegon County, are preparing and implementing additional coronavirus safety precautions in courtrooms to hold jury trials. Courts in Muskegon County are currently listed in Phase Two, which means limited public access, of the Return to Activities guide established by the Michigan Supreme Court.
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Despite the increased backlog of jury trials, the Muskegon County Deputy District Attorney does not expect it to take long to clear them. Some counties in Michigan expect it to take years to catch up.
With just two cases going to trial in October when judicial restrictions were briefly relaxed, courts are starting to process about double the trial load they’re used to, Maat said.
Maat said there are currently about a half-dozen murder trials set to go, with half a dozen more yet to be scheduled. The two oldest cases, he said, are around two years old, but both have experienced delays that don’t just have to do with the pandemic.
Although only two jury trials have taken place since last March, the courts have remained busy and have continued to resolve a large number of cases they see, so that the total number of cases to be tried, around 150 currently doesn’t look much different, says Maat.
“The number of cases that go to jury trial is not significantly higher than normal,” he said. “The number of cases likely to be tried by jury is significantly higher. “
In an average year, Maat said, Muskegon County sees about 15 to 20 cases going to trial. Of those currently defined, the deputy chief prosecutor predicts that about double that number will go before a jury.
“I may be too optimistic, but I honestly think we can return to a normalized role in a few months,” Maat said. “I’m sure some people will laugh at this.”
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