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Winfield trial to be delayed again

News Photo by Julie Riddle Former Alpena Public Schools teacher Heather Winfield heads to the 88th District Court courtroom behind one of her defense attorneys, Matt Wojda, for a preliminary exam in this News achieve photo.

ALPENA — The impending trial for former Alpena Public Schools teacher Heather Winfeld faces another delay as courts continue to hold off on conducting jury trials, hoping to ensure the safety of court participants as well as the administration of justice.

A scheduled hearing in Winfield’s case was cancelled Tuesday, replaced by a virtual in-chambers conference between prosecution, defense, and Judge Roy Hayes of Charlevoix, who is overseeing the case.

Winfield — a former teacher in Alpena and Hillman schools — is accused of having a sexual relationship with a former student as early as July 2016, beginning when the boy was 11.

Winfield has denied the allegations. The News does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault.

At issue Tuesday was the potential date for Winfield’s trial, an event which has already been rescheduled several times.

The trial is currently slated to be held in August, after coronavirus-related closures upended court operations, forcing adjournment of scheduled trial dates for the case in April.

Pending an official signature by Hayes, the August trial will be adjourned again, to a date yet to be determined, by agreement of both sides.

The prosecution and defense agreed that jury selection, especially in a prominent case that involves the potential for a sentence of up to life in prison, will be a roadblock to completing the trial while insecurities about health risks still linger after the COVID-19 worldwide outbreak.

A deep jury pool, possibly bringing together as many as 150 potential jurors, would be needed for the case, defense attorney Matt Wojda explained — and, he said, the seriousness of the allegations call for a jury that’s vigilant and attentive, without having to fear for their safety because of the nearness of others.

The Michigan Supreme Court ordered the suspension of all jury trials until June 22. There’s been no recent update as to whether the restriction will be extended beyond that date, according to Alpena County Prosecutor Cynthia Muszynski.

Virtual mock-trials are being tested in the state now, suggesting the potential of holding virtual or semi-virtual jury trials in future months, but a case of the magnitude of the Winfield matter shouldn’t be one of the first to utilize such drastic new court protocols, Muszynski said.

A status conference is scheduled for June 23, the day after the ban on jury trials is scheduled to be lifted.

Previous jury trial dates, in September 2019 and February 2020, were adjourned because of the volume of electronic and other information being processed as both sides prepare for trial.

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