Alpena circuit court docket expects jam-packed schedule as virus-delayed trials resume

News Photo by Julie Riddle
Plastic glass dividers wait to protect future jurors during a hearing day in Alpena’s 26th Circuit Court courtroom on Tuesday.

ALPENA — March and April are going to be “extraordinarily busy” at Alpena’s 26th Circuit Court, Judge Ed Black warned attorneys on Tuesday.

During the court’s regular hearing day, several defendants told the court they weren’t willing to plead guilty and wanted a trial by jury.

That’s fine, Black told their attorneys. But, with 32 jury trials needing to be scheduled after a year of no juries called for felony cases amid the coronavirus pandemic, the upcoming court schedule will be jam-packed.

Attorneys won’t be allowed to request new dates once a trial is on the court schedule, which Black expects to be filled with jury trials all through March and April.

Two or three trials are scheduled most days during those months, with the expectation that many cases currently headed for trial won’t make it that far.

For the past year, some defendants have been reluctant to agree to plea deals, stretching out their cases because they knew trials were on hold, Black said. He expects that to change once the court sets hard and fast trial dates.

After several weeks of renovations, the plastic glass-fronted jury box — which attorneys on Tuesday light-heartedly likened to a hockey rink penalty box — is now ready to accommodate jurors with as many precautions as the court can offer to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Newly installed dividers wrap around juror chairs, creating a surprisingly un-claustrophobic experience and providing adequate lightlines and sound conduction, based on a News reporter’s test of the new arrangement.

As long as COVID-19 case rates stay low, trials should be a go in Alpena County come spring after being on hold since the last criminal jury trial in the Circuit Court courtroom in February 2020.

“There’s going to be back-to-back-to-back to back trials” that will keep both prosecutors and defense attorneys extremely busy, but the court has to move those cases along so new ones can get onto the docket, Black said.

“It’s going to be a really full couple of months,” Black said. “But that’s what it takes.”

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