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Uptick in COVID infections could delay Winfield trial

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 — A former teacher accused of having a sexual relationship with one of her students must wait another week to see if her trial slated for June 1 moves forward.

Heather Winfield, a former teacher in Alpena and Hillman, is accused of having sex with a male student for several years, beginning in July 2016, when he was 11 years old.

She was arrested in January 2019 and charged with multiple counts of criminal sexual conduct, accosting a minor for immoral purposes, and using a computer to commit a crime.

If convicted, she faces life in prison.

The News does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault.

At a status conference, held via Zoom on Friday, the prosecution, defense, and 33rd Circuit Court Judge Roy Hayes debated moving forward with the jury trial on the planned date, or to take the wait-and-see approach to see if recent increases in COVID-19 infections in Alpena County wane and current restrictions are loosened.

Judge Ed Black, of the 26th Circuit Court in Alpena, issued a 14-day pause of in-court proceedings a week ago after Alpena met the COVID-19 criteria established by the Michigan State Court Administrator.

Black is expected to either extend the mandate, or lift some of the restrictions in place now, so Hayes scheduled another hearing for Friday at 1 p.m. after Black makes his intentions known.

If court operations ease, it is likely the trial could begin on time. If not, it could begin later this summer.

Alpena courts are currently classified by the state as being in Phase 1, which is the most restrictive, and limits capacity in the courtroom to 10 people or less.

Hayes said that isn’t enough, as the jury, defense, prosecution, and witnesses would easily exceed that number.

Alpena County Prosecutor Cynthia Muszynski said recent COVID-19 trends in the county are moving in the right direction, and she is confident the courts will be up and running the first week of May.

Defense attorney Matt Wojda wasn’t so sure. He said since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been confusion and questions always arise when new orders are released. He said Winfield wants the trial to move forward as soon as possible, but Wojda said he wants to be sure things will go smoothly during it and not risk the rules of the game being changed in the middle of it.

“For the last year there hasn’t been anything that was clear. It is always messy and gray,” he said. “We want to move this forward too, but we also want to make sure it’s done safely and fairly.”

The longer the trial is pushed back, and the more COVID-19 cases that pop up, the worry about holding a jury together increases. Hayes said jurors deserve at least a month’s notice before the trial and being summoned.

Wojda said the longer things drag on, the harder it might be to build a jury, especially for a high-profile case.

“This is a hard jury to seat, minus COVID. It will be harder with it,” he said. “My worry is we may not have the representation of the community at large.”

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