The district court in Dickinson recently conducted its first jury trial amid the coronavirus pandemic. While the trial, which was a case regarding a DUI, contained the typical proceedings -- the judge held proceedings in the front of the court, the attorneys were positioned just below -- it was the jury box that was empty for the first time ever and the witnesses were front and center -- literally.
From jury selection to when the verdict was announced, the courtroom was redesigned to help make the situation more suitable, primarily for the jury. The potential jurors came into the room the same, but instead of sitting in the jury box, they were instead seated where the public would typically sit, in the back of the courtroom. Each person was spaced out to help maintain the socially distanced situation. It was there the jury was selected and the trial began.
After the jury was selected, the jury box continued to be vacated, with the jurors continuing to sit in the public pews in the back of the courtroom. Forcing the attorneys, such as City Attorney Christina Wenko, to talk to the jury with their backs to the judge for the first time.
As for the witnesses, instead of sitting near the judge to answer questions from the attorneys and discuss the case, a new witness box was built in the middle of the courtroom to allow for socially distanced protocols to be met and practiced safely.
Overall, the case ended with a guilty verdict being dealt to the suspect on behalf of the city of Dickinson.
"It was the first one, so it was definitely different, very different," Wenko said. "I guess I would say that (attorneys) always have to adjust. We always have to do the best we can with what we have. It’s easier to do when you have a team that works and everybody's working for the same goal. That includes the court staff, the bailiff, the judge, county officials, and the citizens who came that day to participate and do their civic duty.
"Everyone adhered to the protocols, and everyone was very cooperative, and I think it turned out well."
While the situation may have been different than past trials, Wenko admitted to focusing on the primary goal, one which will never change -- justice being served.
"Personally, when I go into those types of situations, I’m more focused on the case, and doing my job as a prosecutor," Wenko said. "But I think the community members that came in, we hope that given our efforts, given the court efforts, that they felt more comfortable coming in and doing their civic duty while feeling safe in that environment."
Based on the recent trial, there is a strong chance that if, and when, another jury trial is needed, the socially distanced court protocol will be followed again.
"I think that as long as jury trials move forward, this will most likely be the protocol," Wenko said. "We don’t have many jury trials, so when they do happen, I’m confident that the court has a system in place that is proven it works, it did work. And obviously as things progress and we continue to deal with the pandemic, there will always be room for change as we continue to evolve and deal with something that is unprecedented in our time."