Criminal court on the basketball court.

August 6, 2020


Judge Robert D. Springstead presides over a criminal jury trial in the Hart High School gym. Witness Ruth Lathrop testifies.

Criminal court on the basketball court.

By Allison Scarbrough, Editor.

HART — In the era of COVID-19, court staff are getting creative in order to keep the court schedule moving along.

A jury trial in 27th Circuit Court this week is taking place in the Hart High School gymnasium. The court has scheduled another trial next week for the same unique venue.

Defendant Shayne Smith consults with defense attorney Ryan Good during his trial. Smith is accused of manufacturing a sawed-off shotgun, felon in possession of firearms and felony firearms.

“I think they’re going really, really well,” said 27th Circuit Court Judge Robert D. Springstead. “Ms. (Tonya) Selig (court administrator/chief clerk) and her staff at the circuit court have done a fabulous job pulling all the details together. They could not have done it without the help of Hart Public Schools. They have been very gracious to open their facility up to us and have exceeded our expectations. That is what made it possible.

Oceana County Prosecutor Joseph Bizon, at right, and Sgt. Cam Hansen of the Oceana County Sheriff’s Office.

“SCAO (State Court Administrative Office) also approved our safety plan that was in this place, and it was consistent with a Supreme Court order. We took a number of steps to make sure that jurors felt as safe as possible including social distancing coming in; staggering the times that each juror comes through the check-in process; we have temperatures; we have health screening; they were escorted to their seats; we social distanced; we have directional paths; and we separated our jurors also for social distancing. So, I think all that really worked quite well. We have had some members of the public that came, so it’s good know that word got out that we’re doing hearings off-site.

The jury seating area.

“It’s not ideal, but this is going to be our reality — at least according to the current Supreme Court order – until there is a vaccine or the coronavirus is eradicated,” said Judge Springstead. “So, we’re going to have to keep looking for alternative venues. If the kids come back to school in person, this won’t be available to us, so we’re looking for other community resources to do it.”

Attorney Good and defendant Smith.

“I think it’s really coming off without a hitch,” the judge said. “I spent a fair amount of time trying to learn the best practices for doing this. The Supreme Court did a pilot project. A few other counties have done off-site trials, so we’re learning from them. I’d like to thank Federal Judge (Robert) Jonker. I met with him last week, and he had just done a multiple-defendant/multiple-jury trial in federal court. He has some great tips for us. I keep trying to accumulate that information to try to make this the best experience for the defense, the prosecution, the public and of course the jurors who are called to service. I really couldn’t be more pleased with how it’s turned out so far.”

With 50 jurors initially called in for jury selection, court staff knew the normal courtroom was not big enough to house that many people and maintain social distancing. Churches were considered as possible venues, but due to the Separation of Church and State, places of worship were nixed. “That kind of ruled that out,” the judge said.

Banquet facilities were also considered. “We don’t have a lot of banquet facilities that have not only the space for the jury (12 members and one alternate) but also separate space for the prosecution, the defense and the judge’s chambers,” said Springstead. The boys’ locker room serves as a the judge’s chambers, and Prosecutor Joseph Bizon is using the band room as his “office.”

Judge Springstead.

Sheriff’s office deputies, commanding officers and security staff handle screening entrants in the front entrance of the school building.

Other proceedings, such as criminal sentencings and pretrial hearings, continue to be handled via Zoom meetings, which are then streamed on YouTube.

During the trial currently taking place in the gym, the defendant is out on bond. However, court staff considered how the process would be handled if the defendant is in custody, the judge said. “Then we have some security concerns. Can we get the in-custody defendant from the jail discreetly into our new court room? So, there are a lot of things that factor in trying to find just the right venue. It has to be easy to find; it has to have a lot of parking; has to be handicap accessible — all those factors that come into it.

Judge Springstead adjusts the witness’s microphone.

“Ms. Selig was very instrumental in finding this location.

“We put together a checklist of things we needed to have,” said Springstead, such as a good sound system, plenty of space and separate quarters for the game’s key players, so to speak.

“The court staff and the judge were monitoring when we could do something like this under the rules,” said Prosecutor Bizon. “They worked very, very hard to find possible venues. Hart schools was very accommodating and willing to work with us to set this up. Court staff and the school staff are the ones who set this up. They worked very hard to figure out how we could do something within compliance to the rules to get things moving again.

“I’m sure that the court staff and the judge will evaluate the good and the bad that we’ve done here,” said Bizon. “It’s certainly subject to some tweaking. This appears to be working for us for now. I believe this is predominantly what we’re going to be looking at doing next week as well.

“The question is: how do we do it when the kids go back to school because we can’t be here when the kids are here,” he said.

“We had to get permission from the state court and work through those hurdles,” said Court Administrator Selig. “If it wasn’t for Hart Public Schools being receptive to the idea, then it wouldn’t have happened. I told them the idea, and their IT person (Phil DeBrot) is amazing, and he did everything in here, and their staff set it up.”

Good and Smith stand as the jury walks into the gym.

The school and court staff teaming up to keep the court schedule moving during COVID-19 is a big win for the local justice system.

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