“Bear with me here while I get geared up,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Windom told the jury.
He wove between the walls and stood before the evidence stand, which had been moved to the middle of the room and encircled by more plexiglass. He slid on a clear face shield and then pulled off his blue surgical mask before clipping a small microphone to his lapel, so jurors could see his face and hear his voice.
He stood beside an air purifier, just in case.
The trial of Seun Banjo Ojedokun, a 37-year-old Nigerian national accused of participating in a money laundering conspiracy, could finally begin.
The rest of the building felt abandoned, but inside one room on the fourth floor of the U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Md., stewards of the criminal justice system were attempting to show how a federal jury trial could be conducted safely and fairly during the coronavirus pandemic. The trial for Ojedokun, which began Sept. 9 and ended this week with a guilty verdict, was the first federal jury trial to take place in the Washington region since much of the country shut down in March.
Across the nation, judges, attorneys and courthouse staff are grappling with how to resume in-person operations of the justice system six months into a global health crisis that has killed at least 197,000 people in the United States, about 7,400 of whom lived in Maryland, Virginia or D.C.
Federal and state courthouses in the Washington region have been slowly reopening in phases, moving some proceedings into the virtual world and providing the public with dial-in numbers.
But one of the greatest challenges the courts have faced amid the pandemic is trying to reconfigure the jury trial — an already complex process involving dozens of people — at a time when health officials are still discouraging indoor gatherings involving large groups of strangers.
“It’s a mammoth undertaking,” said District Court Division Manager Joe James, who worked with a team of courthouse staffers and judges to prepare for the resumption of federal jury trials in Maryland’s U.S. District Courts.
Planning for the proceedings encompassed not just the trial itself, but all the elements that come before jurors are empaneled and after they are sent home.
“We’re asking people to come in and to do their civic duty,” James said. “We really want to make you feel as safe as possible.”
To mitigate risk, the court sent a questionnaire to all potential jurors before summoning them to court. Those who are elderly or at higher risk of experiencing more severe side effects of the novel coronavirus had an opportunity to defer participation.
About 80 people were called to the courthouse for jury selection, which can be accomplished in half a day but instead lasted until 6:30 p.m. for Ojedokun’s trial. The court rearranged the jury assembly room to allow for social distancing, placing about 40 jurors there and another 20 in a spillover courtroom. Live-streaming cameras connected Windom, U.S. Attorney Robert K. Hur and Ojedokun’s defense counsel, George Harper, to the assembly room so that they could watch the clerk address the jurors.
During a jury trial in pre-pandemic times, the potential jurors would then be taken as a group to the courtroom, where they’d pack into benches and cycle through as the defense and prosecution peppered them with questions.
But for this trial, attorneys questioned jurors five at a time, with one in the courtroom while the other four waited in the hallway, six feet apart.
The court had to rethink even the little things — buffet snacks for the jurors, community water jugs in the assembly room, traffic flow in and out of the courtroom.
“It’s a whole process we go through,” James said. “And we’re learning as we go.”
The attorneys arguing jury cases face their own sets of challenges.
In the lead up to jury trials, Harper said, it has become more difficult to meet with the client because jails are discouraging in-person visits. Many times, he said, preparation happens over confidential phone calls — which makes it harder to show a client documents.
Windom and Hur said one of their greatest challenges was collecting witness testimony from the victims in the case, who were scattered across the country and often elderly. To make it safer for everyone, the court agreed to allow the attorneys to conduct prerecorded video depositions and play those for the jury during the trial.
“It takes a lot more effort, it takes some creativity, but the key for me is that it’s doable and that it can work,” Windom said.
“It’s great to know that it can work because it has to work,” Hur added. “Even in the middle of a pandemic . . . the crimes don’t stop.”
For both Harper and the prosecutors trying the case, the plexiglass barriers and masks forced them to fight old courtroom habits and develop new ones. No longer able to lean over and whisper to their co-counsel or client, the attorneys all said they resorted to knowing glances and passing messages on sticky notes and legal pads.
Hur also said he had to fight the urge to stand when addressing the judge — a sign of respect in normal times that has now become a safety hazard because the plexiglass at the attorney tables is only shoulder high.
The pandemic also became the great equalizer in the courtroom, injecting humility and humor into the proceedings.
“I look ridiculous in this outfit,” Harper told the jury at one point from behind his face shield, which kept fogging up.
Technology malfunctioned with the mute settings on microphones. The attorneys were their own cleanup crews, responsible for sanitizing everything they touched. And early in the trial, a court staffer ran into the plexiglass around the evidence stand, prompting Hur to mark each side of the doorway with sticky notes to prevent further ego-bruising.
“As a trial lawyer, you end up doing a lot of things you didn’t learn in law school,” Hur later joked.
“You do learn to expect the unexpected,” Windom added.
After a six-day trial, the jury found Ojedokun guilty of conspiring with others to deceive and persuade older men and women on dating websites to hand over large sums of money. The group then laundered that money by buying used cars and shipping them to Nigeria, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.
The trial was also Hur’s first since becoming U.S. attorney. He decided to take it on in part because he had worked many trials with Windom and was eager to team up again, but also because he knew the risks associated with trying a case during the pandemic.
“I did not feel I could ask other people in my office to do that without doing it myself first,” Hur said.
The coronavirus hung over the trial until the end. Jurors left the court with instructions about one new, final piece of this civic duty: contact tracing.