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First jury trial in state since COVID completed

Process took months of planning so jurors could gather safely

Second Circuit Judge Rhonda Loo presides over the first jury trial in the state since the COVID-19 pandemic. The Maui News / LILA FUJIMOTO photos

WAILUKU — Before 12 jurors and an alternate were seated last week for the first jury trial in the state since the COVID-19 pandemic, 2nd Circuit Court judges, staff and attorneys spent months of planning, reconfigured a courtroom and precisely measured spaces so jurors were positioned at least 6 feet apart.

“These are trying times. We did our very best to make the jurors comfortable,” said 2nd Circuit Judge Rhonda Loo, who presided over the trial. “I was so proud of our citizens, that 32 actually came to court.

“We were proud to be the first.”

Hand sanitizer, masks, face shields and gloves were available for jurors, who had their temperatures checked before they entered Hoapili Hale, the state courthouse building in Wailuku. Jurors rode three at a time in an elevator to and from the fourth floor.

The 32 prospective jurors were summoned to court Nov. 23 — seven days after Neighbor Island jury trials were allowed to resume Nov. 16 — for the criminal trial of Dwayne Tuck. He had asked for a jury trial on misdemeanor charges of third-degree theft and third-degree assault.

Deputy Public Defender Tyler Stevenson shows jurors a photo of Dwayne Tuck wearing the shirt he said was ripped when Christy Kajiwara-Gusman took her cellphone from him. The photo was part of defense evidence presented Nov. 24 in Tuck’s trial, the first jury trial in the state since the COVID-19 pandemic. Deputy Prosecutors Sally Tobin (left) and Joanne Hicks look on.

On Tuesday, after deliberating for more than a day, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty on the assault charge. Jurors couldn’t reach a verdict on the theft charge.

“It was clear the jurors took their job seriously and they listened intently, all while navigating the first pandemic trial,” said Deputy Prosecutor Tyler Stevenson, who represented Tuck. “They had to overcome some challenges that are not common in jury trials. I thank them for their service.”

The trial was moved to the larger courtroom of 2nd Circuit Chief Judge Richard Bissen, who was part of a jury trial subcommittee established by Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald to consider how jury trials could resume in the pandemic.

Before the trial, Stevenson said attorneys, judges, court staff and sheriff’s deputies participated in two trial simulations, as Judge Bissen took the lead in putting together a guidebook for how jury trials would be held.

During jury selection last week, the courtroom of 2nd Circuit Judge Kelsey Kawano also was used, with prospective jurors there watching a television monitor to see what was happening in the other courtroom as jurors were questioned by Judge Loo and the attorneys.

Some jurors said it was the first time since March that they had been in an enclosed room with strangers. But most said they were comfortable with the precautions in place.

Except for one or two people who had their jury service deferred because of health concerns, “everybody else said they were going to be here, they were going to do their best,” Loo said.

“They were comfortable serving as a juror and coming to to court,” she said. “That warmed my heart.”

Jurors were assigned seats in the five-row courtroom gallery, which had two rows blocked off to maintain distancing. Three television monitors, including two installed on the sides at the front of the courtroom gallery facing jurors, showed witnesses as they testified.

Tables for the defense and prosecution, each shielded by Plexiglas, were rearranged to face each other. Attorneys sat as they questioned jurors and addressed the judge so they wouldn’t block jurors’ line of sight. Attorneys and witnesses spoke into microphones so jurors could hear more clearly.

Deputy Prosecutor Sally Tobin, who handled the trial with Deputy Prosecutor Joanne Hicks, said “there were a few hiccups” in getting used to the new logistics and layout, including sitting and having her back or side turned toward the jurors.

While she could make eye contact with jurors in closer seats, Tobin said it wasn’t as easy to do that with jurors sitting farther away.

“Just as they want to watch the witnesses and see the witnesses’ faces, we want to make sure we’re getting through to the jury as well,” Tobin said. “When they’re 15 or 20 feet away, it’s harder to get that feel.

“It kind of lost some of that personal feel, but it was the same process as always.”

Except for a few seconds when defendant Tuck lowered his mask so a witness could see his face, everyone in the courtroom wore masks. The court provided clear masks for witnesses so their faces could be seen as they testified.

What previously served as the jury box along the side of the front of the courtroom provided some seating for observers. Others logged in to watch the trial by videoconference.

Judge Loo said the 2nd Circuit Court plan for moving forward with jury trials was reviewed by state Maui District Health Officer Dr. Lorrin Pang.

“We took one more step, one more layer of security,” Loo said. “It made us feel even safer.”

Nadine Gomes, judicial assistant for Judge Loo, said the planning for resuming jury trials started months ago, with brainstorming to take into consideration safety concerns as well as liability.

While she was nervous as the trial was starting, “I feel we did the best we could,” Gomes said. “It came out all right.”

She said jurors had cushions to make sitting on gallery benches more comfortable. An air purifier was running at all times in the courtroom powered by ultraviolet lights.

During breaks in the trial, the judge, attorneys and staff left the courtroom so jurors could remain there with the bailiff.

When trial hearings had to be held outside the presence of the jury, the judge, attorneys and staff moved to another available courtroom.

And when it was time for the jury to deliberate, the group moved into the jury room, which has enough space to accommodate 12 people. A large table was replaced with smaller desks and chairs, and windows were opened to allow air to circulate, Judge Loo said.

She said the trial was a team effort, including Gomes and law clerk Emily Collins.

“All of our court staff was available to help,” Gomes said. “We talked to the jurors afterward. They did feel safe.

“Safety was our main concern for them — that was the absolute main concern, to make sure they wanted to come back.”

Tobin said jurors she spoke with after the trial said they weren’t distracted by the new rules.

“The court did a great job with all their protocols and safety features,” she said. “I’m glad they were safe and comfortable and we got one in the books. We know what works and what doesn’t.”

Before last week, it had been more than nine months since the last jury trial in Judge Loo’s courtroom in mid-February.

“We wanted to get our feet wet again,” Gomes said. “Defendants need their day in court.”

“They deserve their day in court,” Loo said. “Everybody does.

“It’s a different world we live in now,” she said. “We got the first one out of the way. The next one will be easier.”

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at lfujimoto@mauinews.com.

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