BARRE — While it looked quite different, the second jury trial held in Vermont since the coronavirus pandemic began 14 months ago was completed Tuesday at the courthouse in Barre.
Robert Dragon, 30, of Barre, was convicted in Washington County criminal court on a felony count of aggravated assault. Dragon will be sentenced at a later date. He is currently housed at Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport.
According to court records, Dragon had attacked a woman in December 2019 by throwing her on the ground, choking her and kicking her in the face. He faces a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.
A jury was picked Monday and the trial commenced with a verdict reached Tuesday. This was the second trial to reach a verdict in the state since the pandemic hit Vermont in March 2020 and trials had been suspended.
The first trial lasted one day and took place Monday in Woodstock. In that case, a man was acquitted on the charges he had been facing from an incident in 2016, according to the Bennington Banner.
The courthouse in Woodstock is meant to be Windsor County’s civil and probate court, not a criminal court. But the trial took place there because Vermont Chief Superior Judge Brian Grearson said that building had an approved ventilation system while the courthouse in White River Junction that typically handles criminal matters did not.
Greason said the judiciary has been following recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and has been in consultation with the state Department of Health about safety measures for court proceedings. He said every courthouse in the state was evaluated by engineering firms to see if their airflow systems were adequate because health experts discovered getting the air flowing helps to stop the spread of the virus. He said the older courthouses either don’t have any kind of HVAC system or what they have is so comprised they aren’t currently usable. He said Barre’s courthouse does have an acceptable airflow system so it can be used for trials.
Grearson said people in the courthouse had to wear masks and were distanced from each other. That meant reconfiguring the courtroom.
A courtroom is typically set up with the state and defense sitting next to each other and facing the judge, who is up front. There is a jury box on the left or right with the public gallery in the back of the room. But because spacing was needed, the jury box in Barre was turned into the witness stand, the defense sat in front of judge, the jury sat where the public usually is and the state sat between the defense and the jury. The jury pool was split between the two courtrooms in the courthouse to accommodate everyone while maintaining a safe distance from each other, with the potential jurors in the second room able to watch what was going on in the first room by video.
Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault, who prosecuted Dragon’s case, said during a normal trial he tries to pay attention to how the jury reacts to certain evidence or information. That’s difficult to do when someone is wearing a mask.
“It was just tough to read the room,” Thibault said.
Attorney Amanda Kitchen, who represented Dragon, said the masks and distancing were an issue for her, as well.
“In the past, the entire jury pool has been in one court room. Even though we only ask questions of 14 at a time, we can see how the rest of the group is responding. Do they seem interested in the case? Do they laugh at our jokes? And, most importantly, how do they look at my client? We want to connect with jurors early and often and that’s not possible over video,” Kitchen said.
She said as much as attorneys watch jurors, the jurors also watch the attorneys, and a defendant in a mask becomes faceless.
“They need to see there’s a person under there, not just a set of eyes charged with a crime,” she said.
Even still, Kitchen and Thibault praised the judiciary, court staff, court officers and everyone else involved in making the trial process as seamless as they could under the circumstances. The judiciary held walk-throughs with attorneys prior to restarting trials so Kitchen said there were few, if any, surprises when the trial was underway.
Thibault said, “The outcome of the case is based on the facts, but more than anything else, I’m just really proud that Washington County got the first multi-day trial done in the state.”
Gov. Phil Scott has said he will remove all restrictions put in place in response to the pandemic when the state reaches 80% of the eligible population with at least one dose of the vaccine, a number the state is days away from reaching. The governor is part of the executive branch and the judiciary is a separate branch of government so Grearson said it will be up to the state’s Supreme Court to remove the restrictions it put in place.
The judge said dropping distancing or capacity requirements for a retail establishment isn’t the same as the requirements for a courthouse. He said people choose to go to a store and they might spend a few minutes there. He said the customer can decide how close they get to anyone.
But in a courtroom setting, he said potential jurors are asked to come in, not because they want to but because it’s their civic obligation.
“We also ask them to stay in a relatively close setting for a longer period of time,” he said.
While the majority of the state is now vaccinated, he said the judiciary is not in a position to ask people about their vaccination status because they have a right to keep their medical information confidential. He said some people might choose not to get vaccinated or can’t get vaccinated. The judge said because of this he expects the courthouses will continue to operate as they are currently, with masking and distancing requirements, for some period of time. Just how long is unknown at this point.
Grearson said he anticipates having meetings over the next week with the judges and court staffs involved in the trials to see how events proceeded and what can be done different. So far, he said it seems to be going well.