CORONAVIRUS

First Linn County trial in COVID-19 era 'stressful'

But prosector, judge and juror say protocols worked

Assistant Linn County Attorney Jennifer Erger stands for a photo Wednesday in the courtroom where she prosecuted the fir
Assistant Linn County Attorney Jennifer Erger stands for a photo Wednesday in the courtroom where she prosecuted the first trial under coronavirus precautions at the Linn County Courthouse in Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — The county’s first jury trial under coronavirus restrictions was a little “stressful” when held last week, a Linn County prosecutor said, because she didn’t know if jurors would be apprehensive about serving or if they could even hear the victim’s testimony because they were spread out in the courtroom for social distancing.

“This courtroom echoes anyway, which makes it difficult to hear sometimes under normal circumstances,” said Assistant Linn County Attorney Jennifer Erger, pointing to the high vaulted ceilings in a courtroom on the fourth floor of the Linn County Courthouse. “I was wearing a face shield, so I wanted to make sure I projected my voice. I felt like I was yelling.”

Stephen Fish, one of the jurors, said it was difficult to hear at times but that didn’t prove to be an issue. He was seated behind the defendant, which he said seemed odd but didn’t impact his attention to the case.

He liked the fact that the witnesses wore face shields so he could see their facial expressions, especially the victim.

The two-day trial was the first in the county since March, when the pandemic forced the courts to substitute phone and video hearings for in-person hearings and delay all trials.

The Iowa Supreme Court ordered a stop to jury trials across the state until mid-September. A task force set up guidelines and protocols to continue court services while trying to keep everyone safe.

Linn County court administration has followed those protocols — social distancing, extra cleanings and sanitizing and requiring masks or face shields — in order to resume jury trials. Typically, the district would have more than one trial at a time in each of the six district courthouses — Linn, Johnson, Benton, Jones, Iowa and Tama counties. But to maintain restrictions, court officials chose to have one trial at a time.

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Court officials have said there is a large backlog for misdemeanor and felony trials, which varies from week to week because some will reach plea agreements.

Last week, Erger said it was strange to have the 25 people in the jury panel seated outside the jury box and in the gallery — where spectators usually sit. Typically, there is part of the jury pool in the gallery, but the usual panel of 35 people being questioned are seated in the jury box or in front of the gallery railing. The rest of the pool stays behind the railing.

She had to remember to make eye contact with the jurors scattered about the room during the selection process. Erger even moved over to the table where the defense is usually seated, so as not to turn her back on potential jurors. When the final 12 were selected, there were four spread out in the jury box, six seated in front of the gallery railing and two in the front row of the gallery.

It also was important to Erger to see expressions of witnesses, especially the victim, because it helps determine their credibility.

Erger said she particularly wouldn’t want a face mask to conceal a witness’ emotions in a case involving a crime of violence — as was this assault case.

Fish said he was impressed with the safety measures in place. He didn’t know what to expect because he hadn’t served on a jury for about 20 years.

“I first thought, ‘How would they do this in a pandemic?’” Fish said. “But they went out of the way to keep everyone safe. I was comfortable being on the jury.”

Deliberations also were different because jurors usually go to one big conference room. But to maintain social distancing, they stayed in the large courtroom.

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Associate District Judge Russell Keast said he talked with jurors after the trial and none expressed concerns about serving. Jury questionnaires were sent beforehand and anyone receiving a jury summons could ask to delay service if he or she had any had health concerns, the judge noted.

No issues came up during the trial, Keast said. “Really, the only difference was the logistics,” he said.

District Judge Kevin McKeever, who had the first jury trial last month in Benton County, said he also had a similar experience. Fewer potential jurors were needed for the misdemeanor trial and could fit into the large courtroom in Vinton. Jurors in that trial also stayed in the courtroom to deliberate.

Keast and McKeever said each of their trials and jury selections didn’t take longer than normal.

Erger agreed, but pointed out a more serious felony trial may take longer than usual because more potential jurors will likely be questioned one-on-one. The jury pool also may have to be separated into groups to fit into the courtroom for questioning, depending on how many are summoned.

She said she feels better after having the first trial — now she knows what to expect.

“I’m thankful for the juror’s patience and that they followed the guidelines,” she said.

Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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