Courts looking for bigger locations amid COVID-19

By CANDY NEAL
cneal@dcherald.com

The courts are starting up jury trials again. But doing that safely might mean holding them somewhere other than in the courtrooms.

Dubois Circuit Judge Nathan Verkamp talked to the Dubois County Commissioners Monday about finding accommodations and having the technological support needed for conducting jury selections, as well as for having jury trials.

“We have to start jury trials back up,” he said. “The [Indiana] Supreme Court said that we weren’t allowed to have any jury trials until July 1. I vacated all our jury trials through July.”

Circuit court has a murder trial coming up, Verkamp said, around the beginning of September.

Verkamp, Dubois Superior Judge Mark McConnell and the prosecutor’s office have been looking at other locations that have large enough accommodations. For instance, Verkamp was planning to meet with representatives at Shiloh United Methodist Church on Monday to discuss using the church’s community room.

But doing court work at a location not owned by the county will mean that the county will have to have a contract agreement to use the facility.

Because of COVID-19, the Supreme Court told courts to cease operations, except for emergency hearings.

“The only things the courts were doing were emergency hearings for those who needed the courts’ attention immediately,” Verkamp said. “Those were done [through] telephonic technology and video technology like Zoom.”

But now, the courtrooms are moving back to full operations. “We’re requiring masks,” Verkamp said. “We’re doing the best we can.”

But it will be difficult to do jury trials in the courtrooms. “Our jury process is typically bringing in 50, 60 people into the courtroom at one time in the morning and doing the jury selection.,” Verkamp said. “That’s standing-room only. There’s absolutely no way to social distance.”

As for trials, “there’s no way, with the size of our courtroom, that we can safely for the community conduct a jury trial,” Verkamp said.

He added that it would be best to find a larger site to do the jury selection process.

“Then the question is: Do we do the jury trial there,” he said, “or do we come back with our sworn jurors and conduct the trial within our own confines? We’re still discussing that with all the players.”

Circuit court handles all major felonies Level 5 and above. So typically the jury is 12 people with up to two alternates.

Verkamp said he will need some resources to get additional help. “We’re going to want to take temperatures of everybody that comes in,” he said. “We’re going to need security.”

The courts will also need a way to record proceedings and preserve them for the future, in case there is an appeal or post-conviction relief filed after.

“I’m required to ensure that everything is recorded. We have all the recording equipment in-house,” he said. “If we go off site, we won’t have that.”

He asked if Matrix, whom the county has a technology contract with, could assist with this matter, “to go with me and get this all set up.”

The commissioners said they will support whatever the courts need to conduct their work.

“And because it’s due to the virus and the situation we’re in, it may be reimbursable expense” through the CARES Act, Commissioners President Chad Blessinger said. “Regardless of if it is reimbursable, it’s the right thing to do and [we] need to do it. I would support trying to find a way to pay for it, and giving you the resources you need to operate.”

Blessinger mentioned that a company is coming to talk to the commissioners during their July 20 meeting about doing recordings for the county. But the commissioners supported Verkamp going to Matrix for assistance.

Other suggestions for locations were thrown out at the meeting, including the Dubois County 4-H Fairgrounds’ annex and the former Fifth Street and 10th Street elementary schools. Verkamp said they will explore all areas, but his understanding is that the school buildings have been cleaned out, so there is no furniture.

Verkamp appreciated the county’s support.

“There are people in jail right now, who haven’t gotten their day in court,” he said. “I think we owe it to them to get a trial for them, and do it as safely as possible.”




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