Dane County Circuit Judge John Hyland informed the jury of 18 hearing the case that they would be told on Friday when they can expect the trial to resume. The jury had been hearing testimony since Jan. 4. He said the public would also be notified Friday.
Under COVID-19 protocols in place at the Dane County Jail, where Halderson has been held on $1 million bail, it’s possible that testimony will not resume until Jan. 19, Hyland said.
The jury has not been told it was Halderson who tested positive for COVID, only that it was someone who was essential to the case. Lawyers, investigators and bailiffs were intentionally kept out of the courtroom while Hyland informed the jury of the situation to avoid implying to jurors the identity of the person who tested positive.
Jury members were told to continue not to discuss the case among themselves or with anyone else and to avoid any news reports concerning the case.
“The court recognizes the incredible commitment and dedication of the jurors, as well as the other participants during the past six days of this trial,” Hyland wrote in an order furnished to the jury. “The court also recognizes the jurors’ commitment to curtailing not just their lives, but their contacts and communications with others and their exposure to news and media sources throughout the last 10 calendar days. The court finds it necessary at this time to ask that the jurors continue that conduct and commitment.”
The jurors, all wearing face coverings as required by a local public health order, were difficult to read for reactions to the news. So that their minds could be set at ease, Hyland said, he ordered rapid COVID tests to be distributed to any juror who wanted one.
The identity of the person who tested positive was kept from the jury at the request of Halderson’s attorneys, Catherine Dorl and Crystal Vera, who were concerned that jurors might hold their extended jury service against Halderson. Dorl said she was not requesting a mistrial at this time.
District Attorney Ismael Ozanne said Tuesday that several necessary witnesses reported Sunday and Monday morning that they tested positive for COVID-19.
A third homicide trial, a multi-week trial for Kenyairra Gadson, who is charged with the 2018 shooting death of a man in a Downtown parking ramp, is proceeding in another courtroom. No problems have been reported so far.
The COVID test was administered to Halderson on Monday, Hyland said. Under jail protocol, that would mean he could not be available to return to court until Jan. 19. Deputy District Attorney William Brown said a vaccination card for Halderson was taken as evidence from the home where Halderson lived with his parents indicating Halderson has had two doses of vaccine.
Halderson, appearing in court by telephone from jail, chimed in that he is vaccinated. Hyland said he hopes that could mean Halderson’s time in isolation could be shortened and allow him to return to court on Tuesday.
Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Courts are closed for the holiday.
COVID and courts
So far, said Dane County Circuit Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn, COVID outbreaks have not played a major role in the ability of the county’s courts to get through a backlog of trials caused by a 15-month shutdown of in-person court proceedings that began in March 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bailey-Rihn, the presiding judge in Dane County, said she is aware of only the two trials from this week that have been affected by COVID-19, and those infections were among case participants and not jurors. She said she had a trial over the summer in which one juror tested positive for COVID-19, but it did not have an impact on the trial.
“We’re doing everything we can to minimize the risk,” Bailey-Rihn said. “We are allowing people that have been exposed or otherwise suffering symptoms to work remotely while they get tested to minimize the number of people in the building who have been exposed. A lot of judges are reverting to more Zoom hearings again so that we don’t have the number of people in the building.”
Unlike 2020, there’s no state Supreme Court order concerning the operation of the state’s courts during the pandemic, and there now is a backlog of criminal cases.
“We cannot stop doing jury trials,” Bailey-Rihn said. “I think at this point, with the citizens of Dane County being vaccinated and boosted more so than other areas, we are relatively safe. We take all precautions we can for the jurors. We make sure that everybody’s masked.”
Air filtration units remain in place in courtrooms, along with widely available hand sanitizer, she said, and everything is being done to minimize the risk of exposure to COVID.
If any jurors in the Halderson case report feeling uncomfortable to continue because of the positive COVID case inside the courtroom, Bailey-Rihn said, Hyland would decide what to do. But that’s why six alternate jurors were selected along with the normal panel of 12, she said. Even so, she said, “there’s no juror who’s indicated they feel uncomfortable coming back.”
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