LIMA — Allen County’s first jury trial of the COVID-19 era came off with only minor procedural and logistical hiccups on Tuesday.
With a long-abandoned courtroom on the fourth floor of the Allen County courthouse hustled into shape late last month for a trial that ultimately never materialized, court personnel finally had the opportunity to test drive their new, albeit temporary, surroundings and work out some of the kinks.
Common Pleas Court Judges Jeffrey Reed and Terri Kohlrieser in March suspended all jury trials in March following the onset of the novel coronavirus. Courtrooms in the Allen County Justice Center atop the sheriff’s office and jail were deemed by court officials to be inadequate for jury trials for health reasons due to narrow hallways and limited spectator seating. The courtroom on the courthouse’s fourth floor with its spacious accommodations was seen as the best alternative for the jury trials in the short term.
The first jury trial at the new site was scheduled for June 22 but proved unnecessary when the defendant entered a plea to the charges against him that morning. While the June case featured a defendant charged with kidnapping and aggravated robbery — a high-profile case certain to feature several witnesses, media coverage and spectators — Tuesday’s case featured a defendant charged with a third-degree felony count of aggravated possession of drugs. Only two spectators — family members of the defendant — were in attendance.
Reed, who presided over Tuesday’s case, said he was pleased that no problems arose that couldn’t be quickly remedied.
“I credit my staff, the county building and grounds department and the health department for their work in getting this (courtroom) whipped into shape. They were all involved,” the judge said. “Like any other job, after you’ve worked in one space for 20 years and then are suddenly put into another, it’s different. I liken it to being a visiting judge in another county; you’re just not sure where everything is.”
Jurors on Tuesday deliberated in the spacious courtroom instead of a cramped jury room to accommodate social distancing. There was no table for them to huddle around and communicating with the bailiff was made difficult after it was learned there was no telephone for jurors to relay their questions or concerns. Minor inconveniences, to be sure, and ones which Bayliff Monica Garlock said were taken in stride by the jurors.
“I hated it that we couldn’t be more hospitable to the jurors, to get them coffee or snacks or whatever,” Garlock added. “But other than that, it wasn’t bad.”
Reed said transporting defendants from the jail to the courtroom using a public courthouse elevator was an “additional concern” in the court’s new surroundings but it proved not to be an issue.
“I was a little nervous before we got started, but all in all once things got rolling it was just the same thing in a different location,” the judge said.