BENNINGTON — Bennington County is one step closer to restarting jury trials.
A jury was selected Tuesday to hear a local criminal case scheduled to start Thursday — the county’s first jury trial since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Vermont a year and a half ago.
Fourteen county residents, including two alternate jurors, were picked to hear the state’s case against Joshua Boyer, a Bennington resident accused of sexually and physically assaulting a teenage girl. Boyer, 34, has maintained his innocence through more than three years of being held without bail on three felony charges.
This is Boyer’s second jury trial. His first, in November 2019, ended in a mistrial due to juror misconduct.
Because of the court’s social-distancing policies, a limited number of people will be able to watch the trial in person. People in the courtroom will be placed 3 feet apart from each other, said Bennington County Court Operations Manager Wendy Dickie.
After considering the people directly involved in the case — such as jurors, the judge, attorneys, the defendant and witnesses — only four seats will be available to members of the public. The presiding judge, Cortland Corsones, allocated these seats evenly to the family and friends of Boyer and of the complainant.
Everyone else who wants to witness the trial, including members of the press, have been asked to tune in through WebEX, the court’s online hearing platform. To get the trial log-in information, email a request to JUD.BenningtonUnit@vermont.gov.
PUBLIC ACCESS TO TRIAL
Defense attorney Kate Lamson objected to the public’s limited courtroom access. At a pretrial hearing on Monday, she said people watching online won’t be able to see the entire courtroom, and Boyer has a number of family and friends who wanted to attend in person, just like they did at his first trial.
“I understand the court’s reasoning and ruling on that,” Lamson told Corsones, “but I did want to place that on the record. I think it’s an important right, despite COVID.”
In response to Banner questions ahead of the trial, Lamson made a comment only on the access issue. “We don’t believe that WebEx access to the trial is sufficient — family and loved ones as well as the interested public should be able to watch the trial without having the luxury of a computer and/or internet access,” she said in an email.
State court officials, when asked when courtroom capacity restrictions would be lifted, said this depends on factors such as the rate of COVID-19 infections and vaccinations.
“As COVID conditions improve, we expect to remove limitations on the number of individuals,” said the Vermont Superior Court Chief Judge Brian Grearson. “But because of the ever changing nature of the virus, I cannot give you a firm date.”
The trial, scheduled to run through Monday, will incorporate other courtroom practices that evolved during the pandemic. Two state witnesses, as well as one from the defense, have been allowed to testify remotely rather than travel long distances. They will be appearing via video link, and jurors will be able to see them on a big screen.
The court has prepared transparent masks for people who are testifying, which will allow jurors to see their mouths.
But Corsones said witnesses — as well as the prosecutor and defense attorneys — can remove their masks if they show the court their COVID-19 vaccination cards.
“It’s much easier to be heard if you’re not wearing a mask,” Corsones said at the hearing Monday.
Members of the jury will be required to wear masks throughout the trial. The judge himself said he will be in a mask unless he has to make important announcements.
Boyer, who has been detained since April 2018, has clamored for a retrial since the state judiciary paused jury trials in March 2020. He has filed multiple motions, including asserting his right to a speedy trial and to be released on bail while awaiting a trial date, which for many months remained in limbo.
“The mental/physical toll it’s all taken on me is unexplainable,” Boyer said in a May letter to the Banner, adding that his wife and children have also been struggling while he has been locked up.
Boyer’s wife decried what she described as prejudicial treatment of her family because of the allegations her husband is facing. In a phone call, she emphasized that he is still waiting for judgment on the charges.
A message asking for comment from the complainant, sent through the victim advocates office, had not been returned as of press time Tuesday.
The prosecutor, Deputy State’s Attorney Alex Burke, declined to comment because the case is still active.