Senior center serves as venue for criminal jury trials.

September 17, 2020

Judge Robert D. Springstead listens to the witness testimony of Oceana County sheriff’s deputy Aaron Cavner during a jury trial in the Oceana County Council on Aging facility Wednesday, Sept. 16.

Senior center serves as venue for criminal jury trials.

By Allison Scarbrough, Editor.

HART — In the era of COVID-19, court staff is working closely with the community to secure venues so the court schedule keeps moving along.

The courtrooms are not big enough to accommodate proper social distancing, so larger facilities in the community are being used.

Oceana’s 27th Circuit Court had jury trials last August in the Hart High School gym. Now that school is back in session, that venue is no longer available.

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Defendant Frederick Abbatoy, Jr., with defense attorney Anna Rapa. Abbatoy was acquitted of the charge of assaulting/resisting/obstructing police following the trial.

This week, a jury trial took place in the new Oceana County Council on Aging (OCCOA) senior center on Tyler Road. Officials expect more trials will take place in the spacious facility over the next few months.

“With our new space, it was a lot easier to be able to say yes we’ve got space for the judge, both attorneys and the jury to separate out from the courtroom itself,” said OCCOA Associate Director Stephanie Moore.

The facility’s approximate 3,800-square-foot “great room” serves as the courtroom.

The OCCOA has not done indoor programming since the pandemic hit, said Moore. Meals for the senior citizens are being delivered to their homes, or they are coming to pick them up. They’re serving 100 meals a day. OCCOA is also hosting outdoor programs, such as parking lot bingo and ice cream socials, for the seniors during the warm weather.

“I’m not sure when we will bring the meals back indoors,” Moore said. Because the seniors are considered part of the vulnerable population that is at higher risk of complications from COVID-19, allowing large groups back indoors may take awhile.

Some clinics involving one-on-one interactions are gradually phasing back in at the senior center. “We’re slowing phasing indoor things back in, but it’s very limited. We’ll bring meals back when we can.”

Oceana County Prosecutor Joseph Bizon, left, Judge Robert D. Springstead and Oceana County sheriff’s deputy Aaron Cavner.

The seniors only got to enjoy the new facility for about three months after it first opened in December. Then, facilities closed down in March due to COVID-19 restrictions.

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Moore said she expects additional jury trials to take place in the senior center over the next few months. It’s likely the trials will continue there through December.

OCCOA continues to provide transportation and in-home care during COVID. “Our busses are still on the road,” Moore said. “Adult day service (in the former senior center on Main Street) is back up and running. We’ve been back about four weeks but on a limited basis.”

“The facility was very nice, and I truly appreciate their support and willingness to work with us to provide a place to move forward,” said Oceana County Prosecutor Joseph Bizon. “The OCCOA staff and court staff deserve a lot of credit for the work they put in to allow this to be possible.”

“I’m very grateful for OCCOA for allowing us to use their beautiful facility; the sherriff’s office for their continuous assistance; and Phil (DeBrot) and Jason (Gale) from Hart Public Schools for allowing us to use and setting up their portable sound system,” said Court Administrator/Chief Clerk Tonya Selig.

Sheriff’s deputies and security staff take entrants’ temperatures and perform health screenings in the front entrance of the building. Deputies provide security inside the courtroom.

Other circuit court proceedings, such as criminal sentencings and pretrial hearings, continue to be handled via Zoom meetings, which are then streamed on YouTube.

“It’s been a challenge for everybody,” said Moore of COVID-19. “We want to do whatever we can to help the community out, since they have helped us so much. It’s a way for us to give back.”

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