The first trial held in the 1883 Stutsman County Courthouse since the early 1980s went well, according to Judge Cherie Clark of the Southeast Judicial District, who presided over the felony jury trial.
"The prosecution and defense adapted well," she said. "... I'm proud we could carry on with a trial during the pandemic with safety."
Jury trials, especially felony trials with a 12-person jury, could not be held in the courtrooms of the new Stutsman County Courthouse because there was not enough space to allow for social distancing, Clark said. When the jurors were spaced far enough apart, some ended up so close to the defense attorney's table they would have been able to hear whispered conversations there.
The 1883 Stutsman County Courthouse is a historic site owned by the North Dakota State Historical Society. It was used as the seat of county government, including the court system, until the new courthouse was dedicated in the fall of 1982. Recent restorations of the old courthouse by the State Historical Society have included painting the courtroom and extensive refinishing to woodwork throughout the building.
The restoration has not included the addition of air conditioning, and participants in the trial described the conditions in the courtroom as "warm."
"The biggest issue was the heat," said Scott Sandness, defense attorney in the trial. "The fans they used to move the air made a background buzz."
Sandness said participants in the trial compensated by talking louder.
Fritz Fremgen, Stutsman County state's attorney and prosecutor at the trial, also said the temperature in the courtroom was an issue.
"The temperature got to 83 degrees Fahrenheit on the first afternoon of trial, and was still rising when we broke at 4:30 p.m.," he said. "Next morning was warm and humid too. The attorneys weren’t wearing their sport coats but conducted themselves with dignity and I think we maintained decorum."
Mike Savalojo, sports editor for The Jamestown Sun and a juror in the trial, said the heat was bearable.
"Surprisingly not as hot as I thought it would be," he said. "It was not sweat-dripping-down-your-face hot."
Other difficulties facing participants in the trial included developing a working sound system and providing a way to display photos and documents by a projector. This required some innovation, Fremgen said.
"In nearly every trial, prosecutors use a projector for still images or dash cams," he said. "The socially distanced audience in the old courtroom created a need akin to a drive-in movie theater, for a 10' by 10' screen. We also needed to shade the windows to dim the lighting. Thanks to Newman signs for donating fabric remnants. Custodian Jim Fettig used remnants to make a huge shade for one set of windows and I used remnants to make the screen."
The trial took nearly two days to complete including jury deliberation which was conducted in a courtroom of the new courthouse.
Clark said the trial was the first conducted outside of the regular courtrooms in North Dakota since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March. More trials are to be conducted in the 1883 Stutsman County Courthouse as long as the pandemic continues.
"We can't delay justice," she said. "... the alternative is the defendant sitting in jail unconstitutionally."
The large size of the old courtroom allows justice to proceed safely, according to Clark.
There is also a sense of history in using a courtroom that saw its first trial 137 years ago.
"I always thought it would be neat to do a mock trial or a real trial in there," said Sandness, who grew up in Jamestown and returned as an attorney in 2005. "It only took a global pandemic to make that happen."
Participating in that was worth a little warmth and inconvenience, Savalojo said.
"They did it for more than 100 years," he said. "We could do it for a couple of days."