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Jury seated as trials resume in Presque Isle County

News Photo by Julie Riddle Defense attorney Devin Pommerenke gestures to his client, Michael Rigot, as he addresses prospective jurors at the beginning of Rigot’s sexual assault trial in Hawks on Tuesday.

HAWKS — The first post-COVID-19 criminal jury trial in Northeast Michigan got underway Tuesday.

Michael Rigot, who has been incarcerated in the Presque Isle County Jail awaiting trial for over 18 months, will finally face a jury on multiple charges of sexualy assaulting two minor girls.

One alleged victim, 12 years old at the time, claims Rigot raped her when she was left alone in his home with him, Presque Isle County Prosecutor Ken Radzibon told the jury in his opening statement.

Another girl told police she and Rigot had an ongoing sexual relationship when she was 14, when she was too young to legally consent to sex.

The News does not identity victims of sexual assault.

News Photo by Julie Riddle Seated by defendant Michael Rigot, defense attorney Devin Pommerenke listens to instructions from the judge at a jury trial Tuesday at the Bismarck Township Hall in Hawks.

Both girls will testify Wednesday, Radzibon said. The jury will also hear from several police officers, an expert in internet crimes against children, and several women who know the defendant.

Defense attorney Devin Pommerenke, who said his client is innocent of all charges, promised to present evidence that the girls’ statements to police were unreliable and police investigations included “significant shortcomings.”

The jury will be asked to review explicit material that could make them uncomfortable, he said, and would hear about what he called several dysfunctional families and a friendship that turned sour, which he claimed led to at least some of the accusations against Rigot.

Tuesday morning was used for jury selection and adjustments to a new court venue.

Shortly before 9 a.m., several dozen Presque Isle County residents stood in line outside the Bismarck Township Hall in Hawks, waiting to be checked in for jury duty.

News Photo by Julie Riddle During a break at the trial of Michael Rigot, beginning Tuesday in Hawks, Judge Aaron Gauthier and court personnel discuss the relocation of a table to better accommodate the first jury trial in criminal courts in Northeast Michigan since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

The hall was chosen for the trial after the 53rd Circuit Court courtroom at the Presque Isle County Courthouse was deemed too small to hold the 125 prospective jurors called for jury selection.

Inside the building, chairs were set into 15 rows, five across, filling a long room in the rural county building usually used for weddings and family reunions. At one end of the room, folding tables and a podium on wheels transformed the space into a courtroom.

Though one man in the line outside objected angrily to being asked to wear a mask inside, most of the prospective jurors — required by law to be present, despite statewide mandates to avoid indoor gatherings — waited quietly to learn which of them would fill the 14-chair juror box stationed near the judge’s table.

A recent order by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, issued at the end of July, reduced to 10 the number of people allowed at an indoor social gathering. That order doesn’t apply to non-social gatherings, such as court proceedings, Judge Aaron Gauther said in early August.

To the best of his knowledge, Gauthier said, Tuesday’s was the largest jury pool assembly in the state since courts were required to move to virtual proceedings in mid-March because of coronavirus-related safety precautions.

News Photo by Julie Riddle Presque Isle County Prosecutor Ken Radzibon listens to comments from the defense during jury selection for the trial for Michael Rigot, which began Tuesday in Presque Isle County.

A previous trial for Rigot was declared a mistrial when the court ran out of prospective jurors during questioning and was unable to seat a jury.

The jury, who were allowed to remove their masks while seated, indicated they were comfortable with attorneys not wearing masks while next to their clients or while addressing the jury.

Just don’t sneeze, one juror said.

After the jury was dismissed, Radzibon asked that he be allowed to provide a one-way screen to keep Rigot out of sight of the two minor girls as they testified.

When one of the girls testified in District Court in 2019, the judge admonished Rigot after he moved into the girl’s line of sight, causing the girl to be distressed and bolt from the courtroom.

News Photo by Julie Riddle Judge Aaron Gauther gives instructions to a socially distanced jury at an in-person criminal trial in Presque Isle County. The trial began Tuesday and continues this week.

Pommerenke objected to the use of the screen, saying it would bias the jury and violate his client’s right to confront his accuser.

Gauthier said he would take the matter under advisement and share his decision this morning.

The trial, which resumes today with testimony from one alleged victim, is expected to last much of the rest of the week.

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

News Photo by Julie Riddle Watched by defendant Michael Rigot, Presque Isle County Prosecutor Ken Radzibon speaks to potential jurors as the first post-COVID-19-closures criminal jury trial in Northeast Michigan got underway on Tuesday in Hawks.

News Photo by Julie Riddle Socially-distant prospective jurors fill the Bismarck Township Hall in Hawks during jury selection for this week’s trial for Michael Rigot of Presque Isle County.

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