Circuit Court jury trials could resume in March

For the first time since 2019, Branch County Circuit Judge Bill O’Grady is hoping to restart criminal jury trials.

Some counties, like Ingham, have been adjudicating cases in recent months. Branch County has not done so due to difficulties meeting COVID-19 guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus.

Ingham will now eliminate jury trials until mid-February due to the Omicron variant.

With federal and state recommendations evolving, O’Grady said testing could safely begin again soon.

“We are very satisfied with the absence of the backlog. We really caught up with business. We only have a small number of cases from 2019 and a small number from 2020, ”after working with the prosecutor and defense lawyers to get pleas.

“Hopefully we get all of these completed this year, hopefully have some actively scheduled trials in the next couple of months,” O’Grady said.

Prosecutor Zack Stempien is concerned that cases delayed for too long will face problems tracing witnesses or problems with witnesses remembering details of crimes when called to testify. He would like to move as many cases forward as soon as possible.

Many defendants insisted on being tried rather than agreeing to plea negotiations for the same reason.

A records check shows that in 2019 there are still two murders, a shaken baby, a strangulation and four criminal sexual conduct cases to go to trial. There are a total of eight CSC cases, plus three homicides, all pending trial.

In 2021, District Judge Brent Weigle was Chief Justice. He stuck to the strict guidelines of the health department and no trials in circuit courts were allowed.

After a year of frustration, for now, O’Grady will be looking to get back to normal as much as possible.

The judge is not as concerned with jurors who meet to judge cases.

“We have to realize that everyone has had the opportunity to get the vaccine. Everyone had the opportunity to get boosters. Everyone knows how to distance themselves socially. We are at a point in life where everyone is very well educated on how to try to avoid any type of disease as best they can, ”he said.

Precautions will be taken. Jurors and people in court can mask themselves if they wish. The court will provide masks and other supplies if needed.

“We will probably have voluntary social distancing. Jurors don’t necessarily have to be in the same box, on top of each other, ”he said.

Most likely, temperatures will be checked and disease screenings performed.

“These little settings that will put people, I think, at ease,” he said.

Jury selections, normally made on Monday mornings, can be divided into two panels. Half will come in the morning, the other half in the afternoon to make the courtroom less crowded.

This would force the trials to start later in the week or could be postponed until the following Monday.

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