Criminal trial in Columbus federal courtroom one of first in the state since COVID lockdown

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For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic started in mid-March, there is a jury trial underway in Columbus.

Seven months of justice delayed.

The criminal trial is being held in the federal courthouse on 12th Street. And U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land has gone to extremes to make the courtroom safe.

“Familiar but strange,” is how defense attorney William Kendrick puts it after a day of jury selection in a federal case involving his client Ernesto Rivera Rodriguez.

Kendrick and co-counsel Mark Shelnutt have been in the federal courtroom many times, but this time it’s different.

“This is so strange, having tried cases for 32 years to have to adjust your mindset on how to do everything that is going to be required,” Shelnutt said. “Where you stand? And how do you question a witness? Where do you put exhibits? … You are going to have to change.”

There has not been a jury trial in the Middle District of Georgia since mid-March.

Rodriguez requested a speedy trial under federal law, and Judge Clay Land accommodated it.

But not without massive changes.

“Really, it boils down to social distancing, wearing a mask and sanitizing,” said David Bunt, Clerk of Court from the Middle District of Georgia.

But accomplishing that was not easy.

David Bunt/Clerk of the Middle District of Georgia

“We came to the realization that we really had to change our mindset,” Bunt said. “So, to do that, we basically flipped the courtroom around. We realized that if we seat the jury in the gallery, and spread them apart and socially distanced; if we moved the location of the witness so they could be further apart from the judge and attorneys. So, really, we reversed the entire layout of the courtroom to make that happen.”

So far, so good. A jury has been picked and open arguments start Tuesday morning.

“We are safe,” Shelnutt said. “And I feel like the judge has done a super job. And all of the parties have worked hard. The clerk’s office and everybody in the courthouse has been great.”

While there is a federal court trial, there has not been a Superior Court trial in Muscogee County since March 14th. And none are scheduled until January. The Muscogee County grand jury resumes work after seven months off next week.

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