Last Thursday, the Dubois County Circuit Court held its first jury trial since the pandemic hit the state in March.
During the trial, Nathan Albrecht, 28, of Ferdinand, was found guilty of three counts — two level one felony counts of child molestation and one level six felony count of performance harmful to a minor. Here is an update on his case.
In March, jury trials were suspended for the most part in response to the novel coronavirus. As the virus spread and data was scarce on its impact, courts were forced to begin to take action to mitigate the potential danger to attendees at court proceedings.
“We had a trial scheduled for April and with the shutdown and the Supreme Court orders, we canceled everything,” said Dubois County Circuit Court Judge Nathan Verkamp.
Then in June, the Indiana Supreme Court issued an order that jury trials could resume after August 31.
With the small courtrooms at the Dubois County Courthouse, any trial would have been difficult to hold with the Covid-19 precautions in place regarding social distancing.
The room for the circuit court is somewhat diminutive. If Judge Verkamp spread his arms, he would be within a few feet of shaking hands with anyone sitting in the witness box on one side and his court reporter on the other side of his bench.
Jurors sit shoulder-to-shoulder in the jury box with the witness box a few arm-lengths away adjacent to the judge’s bench.
The largest open space in the courtroom is the floor separating the two desks where the opposing parties sit and the judge’s bench — just enough room for someone to pace six or eight steps. The standard rectangular desks the attorneys use are squeezed close enough that the opposing parties can easily lean over for confidential conversations during the proceedings. In many cases, multiple attorneys and the parties in the cases are huddled together around those same desks.
Behind a decorative rail that provides a line of separation for the attorneys’ stations, the public gallery is made up of church pews offered for anyone in the public to sit and watch the proceedings. In a more notorious case, it’s common for the court to be standing room only with the pews filled. But even in the more common proceedings, attorneys waiting on their clients or observing the arraignments will commonly stand along a wall next to the windows facing out onto the courthouse square as the public fills the pews haphazardly.
It’s a cozy courtroom and while the Dubois County Superior Court across the foyer is larger, it can be difficult to maintain social distancing there as well.
Outside the two courtrooms isn’t much better for space. That small size continues into the areas set aside for attorneys to meet with their clients, the holding cell for inmates waiting to be charged and even where the jurors retire to deliberate before rendering a judgment.
With the few hard benches in the foyer between the two courts, many family members end up meandering around or leaning against a wall as they wait for their case. Afterward, they even meet with attorneys next to the staircase leading up from the first floor of the historic courthouse.
If you’ve made it this far in the description, now imagine putting up to 40 extra people there as part of a pool of potential jurors for a jury trial and you start to see the issue with keeping people safe.
With the restriction on jury trials lifted, jury selection could become a sticking point moving forward in Dubois County with the limited space available. Fortunately, Shiloh Methodist Church stepped forward to offer its Life Center as a makeshift area for the jury selection last week.
According to Ron Flowers, former director of operations at the church, he was approached in July about the problems the court system would be facing when trials resumed.
“It is a unique and somewhat of an emerging emergency situation,” Flowers explained. “If we have the space and we can fulfill the church’s vision of being vital to the community and helping them out at the same time then it is a win-win the whole way around.”
So, last Wednesday, the Life Center took on an impromptu courtroom atmosphere as Judge Verkamp, attorneys with the prosecuting attorney’s office as well as the defendant and his legal representation went through a jury selection process.
For the trial, 80 potential jurors were initially selected for the process. For this case, the pool was split into two groups — 40 in the morning and 40 in the afternoon — of which, the morning group had 32 they interviewed.
The potential jurors were brought into the Life Center a dozen at a time for the process that allows the two parties in the case to question the candidates and potentially strike them for cause — disallow them from being a juror in the trial because of a bias of some sort. This continues until they find the 12 jurors for the trial.
After interviewing the afternoon’s first batch of 12 potentials, the two parties had found their jurors.
According to Verkamp, the process worked really well in light of the needs being dictated by the novel coronavirus. “Typically, we would call 65 people and you end up with 50 or so for jury selection,” he said. “With 50 people in our courtroom, we would end up with people standing along the walls.”
“I just didn’t think it was responsible or safe to do it the way we have traditionally always done it,” Verkamp added.
In this unusual time, the church fulfilled a need for the community.
“The court is going to share the docket with us so we can ensure there aren’t conflicts with church activities and so forth, but quite honestly, during the pandemic right now activities are minimal,” Flowers said.
For the actual trial, Verkamp and his court staff had to make special accommodations in the courtroom. Jurors were spaced out in the public gallery church pews and anyone from the public wanting to observe sat in the juror box. The desks for the opposing parties were further separated and turned facing each other while the witness box was moved into the center of the floor in front of the judge’s bench. Verkamp brought the courthouses third-floor auxiliary courtroom into service for the jurors to use for deliberating.
It worked really well, according to Judge Verkamp. Masks were in use unless someone was testifying and after a 13-hour day, the verdict was handed down.
He expects the courts will have to continue making adjustments to contend with the virus but was glad the church stepped up to help.
“We wouldn’t have been able to do it without them,” he added.