Fed­eral court­house pre­pares for 1st jury trial since on­set of the pan­demic

First trial of pan­demic era set for Dirk­sen court­house

Chicago Sun-Times - - FRONT PAGE - JON SEI­DEL

For the last two months, Chicago’s fed­eral court­house has slowly been try­ing to get back to busi­ness.

Ar­raign­ments and sen­tenc­ing hear­ings have gone for­ward af­ter long de­lays. Some oc­curred by video, oth­ers with masks and so­cial dis­tanc­ing. But when­ever the ques­tion of jury tri­als has come up, judges have won­dered the same thing out loud: If sum­moned, will ju­rors ap­pear?

It looks as though they’re about to get their an­swer. An Ot­tawa man is set to go to trial Mon­day on charges al­leg­ing he re­peat­edly threat­ened fed­eral of­fi­cials who sought him out af­ter an­gry re­marks made on In­sta­gram to­ward Nikki Ha­ley, then the U.S. am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions.

The crim­i­nal jury trial of Robert Haas, 40, ap­pears to be Chicago’s first since the coron­avirus pan­demic be­gan. It also seems full of pit­falls.

One at­tor­ney in­volved in the case re­cently told the judge, “I don’t feel safe,” and asked for ex­tra pre­cau­tions. Haas, rep­re­sent­ing him­self, has been warned against mak­ing cer­tain com­ments to ju­rors about the virus. And Gov. J.B. Pritzker warned just days ago of a new round of clo­sures as COVID-19 cases tick back up — with a fed­eral court se­cu­rity of­fi­cer among the re­cently di­ag­nosed.

U.S. Dis­trict Judge Ed­mond Chang, who pre­sides over the case, said the court has “taken ex­tra­or­di­nary steps to im­ple­ment as many safety mea­sures as pos­si­ble.”

In the spring, U.S. Dis­trict Chief Judge Re­becca Pallmeyer also ap­pointed a task force to help get the court­house back on track. It is led by U.S. Dis­trict Judge Matthew Ken­nelly, who has strictly en­forced so­cial dis­tanc­ing mea­sures dur­ing re­cent in-per­son hear­ings in his own court­room.

A court spokes­woman shared doc­u­ments with the Chicago Sun­Times out­lin­ing its new plan for jury tri­als dur­ing the pan­demic. They say only one jury trial may be­gin on a given day, re­duc­ing the num­ber of peo­ple en­ter­ing the Dirk­sen Fed­eral Court­house. Writ­ten ques­tion­naires will be used to limit ques­tion­ing in the court­room. Po­ten­tial ju­rors will also be given plas­tic bags with a note­book, pen, hand san­i­tizer and wipes. The bags may then be used for sep­a­rate overnight stor­age.

Court­rooms and jury boxes have been re­con­fig­ured to al­low for so­cial dis­tanc­ing, the doc­u­ments say. Also, rather than be sent to a small jury room for breaks and de­lib­er­a­tions, ju­rors will be al­lowed to spread out dur­ing those times in a sep­a­rate court­room.

Over­flow court­rooms will also be used to help cut down on spec­ta­tors in the trial court­room. Mi­cro­phone cov­er­ings will be re­placed with each speaker, and tra­di­tional “side­bar” hud­dles be­tween judges and lawyers will take place tech­no­log­i­cally or af­ter send­ing ju­rors out of the room.

Al­ready, the court­house has im­ple­mented rules al­low­ing no more than two peo­ple on an el­e­va­tor at a time and re­quir­ing face masks in all public ar­eas.

The new rules will all be put to the test Mon­day if Haas goes on trial, as sched­uled. Haas faces a 13-count in­dict­ment al­leg­ing he threat­ened fed­eral agents with com­ments such as, “A jury of my peers they’ll say kill this moth­erf---er. I know it. He needs a f---ing 12-gauge to his f---ing throat and pull the trig­ger and pop his head off his f---ing shoul­ders. And it’s gonna hap­pen.”

Though Haas is rep­re­sent­ing him­self, Chang ap­pointed at­tor­ney Dena Singer as stand-by coun­sel to help guide Haas through the case. At a hear­ing Tues­day, Singer told the judge she would not feel com­fort­able sit­ting be­side Haas, who has been de­tained at the Metropoli­tan Cor­rec­tional Cen­ter.

“I do not feel safe sit­ting at coun­sel ta­ble with the rise in numbers of COVID-19 and the eas­ily trans­mit­table virus that this is,” Singer said.

Singer said Haas had not re­cently been placed in a quar­an­tine. Rather, she said he had been held in a dor­mi­tory-style set­ting. As of Satur­day, the Bu­reau of Pris­ons re­ported one MCC in­mate with a COVID-19 in­fec­tion, and it said 138 in­mates had re­cov­ered from the virus.

In an or­der Satur­day, Chang wrote that Haas will be tested for the coron­avirus on the first day of the trial and every 48 to 72 hours there­after. The judge wrote that Haas will be checked for symp­toms daily and will be quar­an­tined dur­ing the trial.

Though Singer asked the judge for per­mis­sion to with­draw from the case, Chang later of­fered ad­di­tional pre­cau­tions that seemed to sat­isfy her con­cerns. Her re­quest fol­lowed the rev­e­la­tion that a court se­cu­rity of­fi­cer had tested pos­i­tive for COVID-19. That of­fi­cer last vis­ited the court­house July 24, ac­cord­ing to a let­ter from the chief judge.

As for Haas, he has com­plained the court is un­able to pro­vide a safe venue for his trial and said the case against him should be dis­missed. The judge told him “dis­missal of the case is not an op­tion” but said he would gladly de­lay the trial at Haas’ re­quest.

“Ab­so­lutely not,” Haas told him.

SUN-TIMES FILE

A jury trial sched­uled for Mon­day at the Dirk­sen Fed­eral Court­house down­town ap­pears to be the city’s first since the pan­demic be­gan.

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