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Heather Winfield heads toward trial amid pandemic

Attorneys discuss socially distanced jury selection

News File Photo Former Alpena Public Schools teacher Heather Winfield, accused of having sex with a student, appears in court via videoconference in this July 2020 News file photo.

ALPENA — Social distancing and a mailed questionnaire will take the place of technology in the upcoming trial against former Alpena Public Schools teacher Heather Winfield, who is accused of having sex with a student.

The trial will be held in person, including jury selection, the court determined on Tuesday during a hearing in Alpena’s 26th Circuit Court.

The jury trial will be the Circuit Court’s first since trials were suspended in March as a precaution to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. In the intervening months, nearly all court hearings have been held via videoconference, both locally and around the state, where trial courts have logged more than 500,000 hours of online hearings, according to the State Court Administrative Office.

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.

News Photo by Julie Riddle Jury chairs are corded off at Alpena’s 26th Circuit Court courtroom, where a hearing held Thursday addressed logistics for the upcoming trial of Heather Winfield, a former teacher accused of having sex with a student.

In early August, a list of supplemental questions — many of them specific to sexual assault and other issues to be addressed during the Winfield trial — will be sent to 200 of the 1,800 holders of state IDs or driver’s licenses who already returned standard juror questionnaires mailed out in May and early July, attorneys agreed Tuesday.

A pool of 200 jurors will be summoned to an off-site location — the site yet to be determined — large enough to allow social distancing during jury selection, expected to take one to two days beginning Oct. 15.

The trial itself will be held in the Circuit Court courtroom, with jurors potentially seated both in the jury box and in the gallery area where the general public usually sits. Masks will be required of all participants, with attorneys and witnesses permitted to remove their masks while speaking.

With coronavirus-related restrictions anticipated to still be in place in October, attorneys requested the additional questionnaire to help narrow the pool of jurors before the day of actual jury selection, to minimize the number of people in one place.

Using the returned questionnaires, attorneys will meet to decide which potential jurors — if anyone — to exclude based on the answers provided.

Jurors can still be excluded if either side believes he or she is prejudiced about the case once jury selection begins on Oct. 15.

At Tuesday’s hearing, attorneys debated the finer points of the questions to be sent to the 200 potential jurors.

Potential jurors will be asked if they can sit still for two hours at a time, at least eight hours a day, during the anticipated two-week span of the trial — expected, all the while, to wear a mask as long as court is in session.

They will also have to explain if they have any hearing or sight limitations that would keep them from participating in a trial in which the jury may be scattered around the full courtroom instead in the juror’s box, closer to attorneys and witnesses.

The specific wording of several questions was carefully considered, attorneys debating the merits of using “alleged victim” vs. “complaining witness” or contrasting the impact of “passing judgement” with “rendering a verdict” on a person’s moral or spiritual ability to serve on a jury.

Potential jurors will be asked if they know — and, if so, to describe the nature of their relationship — any of a long list of people who may be called as witnesses in the trial.

Other questions ask whether the respondent has read media reports or posted on social media about the case — or about sexual assault in general — or formed an opinion about the defendant’s guilt or innocence.

The questions will also address potential jurors’ experience with the criminal justice system and police, and whether any experience as a survivor of sexual assault would impact their ability to be fair and impartial as a juror.

Alpena County Prosecutor Cynthia Muszynski asked if there will be retribution on the part of the court if people don’t tell the truth on the questionnaire.

Defense attorney Alan Curtis said he is not opposed to a penalty of perjury for lying to get out of jury duty.

Judge Roy Hayes, of Charlevoix County, who will preside over the Winfield trial, called a threat of perjury more adversarial than he’d like and will consider the potential ramifications of juror untruthfulness.

Although the practice of the 26th Circuit Court has been to livestream hearings in most cases, Hayes directed that Tuesday’s hearing not be livestreamed. The courtroom is open to the public, providing mask and social distancing regulations are followed.

The public won’t fit into the courtroom during the trial itself, Hayes said, but he is considering providing a videoconference link to a room or several rooms in the courthouse where interested parties may observe the proceedings.

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, jriddle@thealpenanews.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that jury questionnaires are sent to holders of state IDs or driver’s licenses. The source of potential jurors was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.

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