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Can I Still Have a Criminal Trial During a Pandemic?

By Daniel T. Geherin

Courts in Washtenaw County and throughout Southeastern Michigan had to reinvent themselves and figure out how to handle busy criminal dockets despite a health pandemic and various governmental shutdowns. Courts couldn’t simply cancel criminal dockets and wait 6 months to resolve cases; way too much is at stake for public safety, for crime victims, and for the accused. So, most courts have gone to a Zoom system where most criminal appearances are handled remotely.  

That’s all fine and good for routine appearances such as Arraignment and Sentencing.  But, what about trials? Trials generally require a physical courtroom; 6-12 jurors; in-person testimony. Generally they can’t be accomplished with a lot of social distancing, especially in smaller courtrooms with multiple personnel present (prosecutor, defense attorney, accused, jurors, witnesses, and court staff). As a result, courts have been struggling with what to do about criminal trials.  

Dan Geherin, owner of the Geherin Law Group PLLC (GLGMichigan) in Ann Arbor, is an ex-prosecutor and board-certified criminal trial attorney. Dan has been a part of the criminal justice system in Michigan for over two decades. Dan and his team at GLG represent hundreds of clients charged with criminal offenses each year. Many of these clients are either innocent or over-charged, so they have a constitutional right to have their cases go to trial.  

Every day, Dan takes calls from clients who are anxious and worried about their right to a trial; when they might have a trial; and whether that trial will be fair under the difficult circumstances. Typical questions:

“What if I am innocent, do I have to accept a plea deal?”

“How will I confront my accuser?”

“When will my trial actually happen?  And will I have bond conditions the entire time before trial?”

“Will I have to wear a mask in front of the jury?”

No one can force a defendant to plead guilty, under any circumstances.  Those clients who want a trial absolutely will get a trial.  However, questions about “when, how and why” remain.  Clients who are in custody will have first priority at trials. Our out-of-custody clients have had trial dates set far into the future, including some almost 9 months from now. Generally, clients have to abide by all bond conditions while they wait for trial. This might mean no travel outside of Michigan; no freedom to drink alcohol; restraints on freedoms, such as a tether or stay-away orders.   

Courts are offering “hybrid” options for handling some portion of the trial by Zoom and others in-person. Criminal defense attorneys must decide on what works best for their clients when deciding whether to agree to such procedures. For example, do we want jury selection to be handled over Zoom? Since many criminal trials come down to the makeup of the jury itself, it seems unlikely that defense attorneys should agree to such an impersonal and awkward selection process. Same with masks; do we really want our client’s faces (and ability to speak clearly, and show emotions) blunted by a mask?  Criminal clients have the bedrock constitutional right to confront their accusers; how can that be accomplished over Zoom, when attorneys cannot approach, confront or impeach witnesses?

Obviously, this is uncharted territory for the criminal justice system in Michigan and throughout the country.  But for people who are accused of crimes, the fear and anxiety increase significantly without knowing how, when and where their trial will play out.  What might help them? Having a seasoned, dedicated and specialized criminal defense attorney in Ann Arbor navigate these uncharted waters and make the best decisions to help preserve their reputation and their freedom.  

For questions about trials, or about any criminal issue, in Ann Arbor or throughout Washtenaw County, please contact Dan Geherin and his team at GLG Michigan.  Schedule online here, or call 24/7 (734) 263-2780. GLG Michigan:  Handling criminal cases—from investigation through trial---in Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County and throughout Southeastern Michigan.