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First jury trial since COVID-19 pandemic will start next week

Rodney Keller, accused of sexually assaulting a child, had mistrial in October 2019

La Plata County plans to hold its first jury trial since the novel coronavirus pandemic forced the criminal justice system to postpone trials earlier this year.

“It will not feel like normal,” said Eric Hogue, 6th Judicial District court administrator. “But a lot of time and consideration went into this plan to keep everyone safe ... while protecting the process.”

Jury trials in Colorado were shut down March 16. Ever since, local jurisdictions have been planning a safe return to trials by implementing measures such as social distancing and limiting the number of people in groups.

Sixth Judicial District Chief Judge Jeffrey Wilson said given limitations of space at the La Plata County Courthouse, only one jury trial can happen at a time. With an increasing backlog of cases, even one trial at a time is important to get the process restarted, he said.

“We’re forced to tread water as best we can until this is all over,” Wilson said.

About 500 residents have been summoned for the first jury trial since the COVID-19 shutdown for the trial of Rodney Keller, a Pagosa Springs man accused of sexually assaulting an 8-year-old girl in June 2018 in Bayfield.

A mistrial was declared in Keller’s case in October 2019 after jurors could not come to a unanimous decision about guilt or innocence. Prosecutors quickly announced they intended to retry Keller.

Hogue said potential jurors will come in five waves of 100 people spread throughout three days – two on Monday, two on Tuesday and one on Wednesday.

In normal circumstances, only about 45% of people summoned to court show up, so about 40 to 50 people are expected in each wave, Hogue said.

Sixth Judicial District Chief Judge Jeffrey Wilson said each potential juror will be screened at the La Plata County Courthouse door. Temperatures will be taken and potential jurors will be asked a series of questions to determine if they have potentially been exposed to COVID-19.

Potential jurors will be screened at the courthouse door. Each person entering the courthouse will have their temperature taken and will be asked a series of questions to determine if they have been potentially exposed to the virus.

Wilson said people who may be especially at risk of the virus or living with vulnerable people will likely be sent home, further whittling away the potential jury pool.

They will then be split into two groups while jury selection occurs.

“(Jury selection) is definitely going to take longer,” Wilson said.

Everyone in the courtroom will be required to wear a mask, except during testimonies. The 12-person jury will be distanced 6 feet apart. And public seating will be limited.

Each judge has the option to broadcast the trial over the court’s streaming service. Judge Todd Norvell will oversee Keller’s case.

Given the limitation of being able to hold only one jury trial at a time, cases will be prioritized, said 6th Judicial District Attorney Christian Champagne.

In an average year, the 6th Judicial District prosecutes about 60 trials.

“Obviously, we haven’t had any trials since March, so we’re definitely way behind,” Champagne said. “So we’re trying to pick the most important cases and move forward on those first.”

Champagne said it is essential to restart cases, however slowly that may occur.

“This is a core civil duty we have to perform as a community, and we really need people to come forward and participate,” he said. “I think people will be pleasantly surprised at how safe it is and how many precautions are being put into place.”

Wilson said the first jury trial will also serve as a learning experience.

“We’ll be able to see what works and what doesn’t,” he said.

Because each jurisdiction and local courthouse is unique, the state of Colorado did not set blanket guidelines and regulations for restarting jury trials, Hogue said.

The state, however, provided feedback about the 6th Judicial District’s restart plan, Hogue said.

Brian Devine with San Juan Basin Public Health said the department reviewed the 6th Judicial District’s plan and performed a site visit.

“We did not offer formal ‘approval,’ as that was not required,” he said “However, we provided feedback to the district on a couple of occasions to ensure that their plan complied with all relevant public health orders and implemented best practices in infection control.”

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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