For the first time since Fredericksburg-area courts drastically scaled back in-person contact last week, a jury trial got started Monday.
Michael Wayne Stephens, 53, of Jeffersonton in Culpeper County is on trial in King George Circuit Court on multiple charges of forcible sodomy and indecent liberties with a child. The trial is scheduled for three days.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Keri Gusmann said speedy trial issues were a factor in the decision to move ahead, in spite of requests from federal and state officials to limit the number of people gathered together.
“[The coronavirus situation] is a completely unprecedented, bizarre situation,” Gusmann said. “But defendants have the right to a speedy trial and a jury trial.”
Speedy trial rules in general require people in custody to have their trials start within certain time frames, depending on whether they are incarcerated. Stephens was arrested in September and indicted a few months later.
Stephens, who is accused of molesting four different children between 1988 and 2008, had a three-day trial last month in the same courtroom. But a mistrial was declared after the jurors heard information they weren’t supposed to hear while the final prosecution witness was testifying.
Judge Michael McKinney and other courthouse officials have installed several safeguards to alleviate safety concerns associated with the trial. All of the potential jurors who showed up Monday had their temperatures taken, and three were sent home because of higher-than-acceptable readings.
Once the 12 jurors and two alternates were selected by Gusmann and defense attorney George Wooditch, McKinney had some spread out in the normal jury box and others on regular courtroom seats in an effort to adhere to social-distancing recommendations.
In addition, the King George Courthouse has a worker who has been sanitizing the courtroom and other areas in the courthouse on a regular basis. He wiped down the courtroom at lunchtime, after court and will do so again Tuesday morning before court resumes.
Meanwhile, nearly all of the other jury trials scheduled throughout the area have been pushed back at least several weeks as the pandemic continues. Courthouses are generally closed to the public and some of the proceedings that are being held are being handled by video.
Cases considered essential, such as bond hearings and protective order situations, are about the only things going forward in most courts at the current time.
“We’re just going day by day,” Stafford Circuit Court clerk Kathy Sterne said. “This is new to everyone and no one is really sure what the next day is going to bring.”
Several defense attorneys wondered if jurors would be able to concentrate on the evidence in light of coronavirus concerns.
“It doesn’t seem fair to anybody to have a jury trial right now,” attorney Tara-Beth Coleman said. “People are going to be more concerned about the 12 people sitting near them than what’s going on in the case.”
Caroline prosecutor Kelly Grace Green had a two-day trial set this week that was continued at the request of defense attorney Tim Barbrow. Green said she doesn’t know what would have happened had the defense not asked for the continuance.
“Incarcerated people need to have their day in court,” Green said. “But I wonder if the [summoned] jurors would even show up. Nobody wants to sit in a room altogether during these times.”
Whenever the court situation gets back to normal, officials will have to scramble to deal with what in many localities are already heavy dockets. In Stafford County, for example, the courthouse halls are filled with people on regular days.
“We don’t even want to think about what things may look like on the other side of this pandemic,” Stafford Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Olsen said.
King George may also have the second area jury trial during the pandemic. A three-day trial is scheduled to start next week for a man accused of shooting a woman in Dahlgren in 2018.