Jury trials are underway again across the state after months of delays because of the coronavirus pandemic.
In Carroll County, that means masks and plenty of distance between jurors, lawyers, defendants and judges.
“I love jury trials, and after almost a year, I was eager to experience the COVID-19 courtroom protocol,” said County Attorney John Werden, who prosecutes criminal cases, in reference to the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Before the pandemic, jurors sat on cushioned seats, shoulder-to-shoulder in two rows near the front of the district courtroom.
Last week, they sat in the gallery — which is typically reserved for family, friends and other observers from the public — on long wooden benches, farther back and far apart.
There were plastic dividers that separated the judge from witnesses and the prosecutors from the defendant.
A yellow sign said: “Attention: Please maintain social distancing.”
Attorney Mark Rasmussen wore a plastic shield when he gave his closing remarks to the jury. Beams of reflected light crisscrossed his face in a distracting way as he bobbed.
“His whole body didn’t go into the house,” Rasmussen argued.
He was defending Brice Shrimpton, 30, of Carroll, who was accused of breaking into his own house last year.
Shrimpton had been barred by a protective order from going into the house on Court Street and having contact with a woman there, but in the early morning hours of Dec. 14 he broke three windows and kicked in a door after he saw the woman with another man.
Shrimpton claimed he didn’t actually go inside the house — which was a key element of the felony burglary charge he faced.
Witnesses said he did go inside and called out: “Are you ready to die, motherf-----?”
“Mr. Shrimpton is guilty of a burglary,” Aaron Ahrendsen, an assistant county attorney, told the jury as he pinched his mask to tighten it around his nose.
The 12 jurors agreed. Shrimpton faces up to 10 years in prison when he is sentenced next month.
Challenges posed by the pandemic for similar trials will persist for the foreseeable future, Werden said.
The district courtroom is not big enough everyone for jury selection, so potential jurors have to be separated into two groups: One group in the courtroom on the top floor of the downtown courthouse, and one group watching a video feed in a room on the bottom floor.
And after jurors are selected and seated in the gallery, it’s awkward.
“Having my back to the jury was not effective for communication,” Werden said. “When I was able to face the jury during statements and arguments, they were far away and behind masks. It was hard to read faces and reactions.”