For the last two months, Chicago’s federal courthouse has slowly been trying to get back to business.
Arraignments and sentencing hearings have gone forward after long delays. Some occurred by video, others with masks and social distancing. But whenever the question of jury trials has come up, judges have wondered the same thing out loud: If summoned, will jurors appear?
It looks as if they’re about to get their answer. An Ottawa man is set to go to trial Monday on charges alleging he repeatedly threatened federal officials who sought him out following angry remarks made on Instagram toward Nikki Haley, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
The criminal jury trial of Robert Haas, 40, appears to be Chicago’s first since the coronavirus pandemic began. It also seems full of pitfalls. One attorney involved in the case recently told the judge “I don’t feel safe” and asked for extra precautions. Haas, representing himself, has been warned against making certain comments to jurors about the virus. And Gov. J.B. Pritzker warned just days ago of a new round of closures as COVID-19 cases tick back up — with a federal court security officer among the recently diagnosed.
U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang, who presides over the case, said the court has “taken extraordinary steps to implement as many safety measures as possible.” In the spring, U.S. District Chief Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer also appointed a task force to help get the courthouse back on track. It is led by U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly, who has strictly enforced social distancing measures during recent in-person hearings in his own courtroom.
A court spokeswoman shared documents with the Chicago Sun-Times outlining its new plan for jury trials during the pandemic. They say only one jury trial may begin on a given day, reducing the number of people entering the Dirksen Federal Courthouse. Written questionnaires will be used to limit questioning in the courtroom. Potential jurors will also be given plastic bags with a notebook, pen, hand sanitizer and wipes. The bags may then be used for separate overnight storage.
Courtrooms and jury boxes have been reconfigured to allow for social distancing, the documents say. Also, rather than be sent to a small jury room for breaks and deliberations, jurors will be allowed to spread out during those times in a separate courtroom.
Overflow courtrooms will also be used to help cut down on spectators in the trial courtroom. Microphone coverings will be replaced with each speaker, and traditional “sidebar” huddles between judges and lawyers will either take place technologically or after sending jurors out of the room.
Already, the courthouse has implemented rules allowing no more than two people on an elevator at a time and requiring facemasks in all public areas.
The new rules will all be put to the test Monday if Haas goes on trial as scheduled. Haas faces a 13-count indictment alleging he threatened federal agents with comments like, “A jury of my peers they’ll say kill this motherf—er. I know it. He needs a f—ing 12-gauge to his f—ing throat and pull the trigger and pop his head off his f—ing shoulders. And it’s gonna happen.”
Though Haas is representing himself, Chang appointed attorney Dena Singer as stand-by counsel to help guide Haas through the case. At a hearing Tuesday, Singer told the judge she would not feel comfortable sitting beside Haas, who has been detained at the Metropolitan Correctional Center.
Singer said that Haas had not recently been placed in a quarantine. Rather, she said he’d been held in a dormitory-style setting. As of Thursday, the Bureau of Prisons reported zero current COVID-19 infections among MCC inmates, though it said 138 inmates had recovered from the virus.
“I do not feel safe sitting at counsel table with the rise in numbers of COVID-19 and the easily transmittable virus that this is,” Singer said.
Singer wound up asking the judge for permission to withdraw from the case. Her request followed the revelation Wednesday that a court security officer had tested positive for COVID-19. That officer last visited the Dirksen courthouse July 24, according to a letter from the chief judge. During a Friday hearing, Chang offered additional precautions to Singer that seemed to satisfy her concerns.
As for Haas, he’s complained the court is unable to provide a safe venue for his trial and said the case against him should be dismissed. The judge told him “dismissal of the case is not an option” but said he would gladly delay the trial at Haas’ request.
“Absolutely not,” Haas told him.