BENNINGTON — An inmate demanding to be retried immediately is looking for an alternative trial venue — such as a church or school gymnasium — while courthouses are making adjustments to the pandemic.
Robert Billington, 36, of Bennington, has been jailed for two years on charges of sexual assault with no consent as well as lewd and lascivious conduct. He is being held without bail.
His trial last year ended in a deadlocked jury. After prevailing in a Supreme Court appeal, Billington is now waiting to be retried once the local courthouse is greenlighted to restart jury trials.
On Wednesday, Billington’s lawyers told the court he is willing to be tried in an “unconventional forum” if one at the courthouse isn’t immediately possible.
“We would like to ask the court’s permission to put together a proposal of different places around Bennington that may be appropriate for holding Mr. Billington’s trial,” defense attorney Kate Lamson said.
The prosecutor didn’t object to an alternative venue if Billington obtains the required approval from state court officials. “I’m all for that,” said Deputy State’s Attorney Alex Burke. “I am happy to assist in getting this to trial as quickly as possible.”
Burke said also that he is amenable to a trial by judge, rather than by jury, if Billington wants to go that route.
The trial court judge denied Billington’s request for an immediate jury trial, saying the Bennington criminal court is not yet authorized to do so.
As for his suggesting alternative trial venues, the court had no issues with it. Bennington County Superior Judge Cortland Corsones told Billington’s attorneys they could either send their proposal directly to state court officials or submit it through the trial court.
“If you folks have any creative ideas, the court’s happy to consider that,” Corsones said.
TRIALS ON PAUSECriminal and civil jury trials in Vermont have been on hold since March, when the novel coronavirus outbreak hit the state. There was an attempt to restart criminal jury trials this month through a case in Windham County, but the plan was canceled because of the post-Halloween coronavirus spike.
Two weeks ago, the Vermont Judiciary said local courthouses can restart jury trials after Jan. 1, with permission from the State Court Administrator and Chief Superior Judge.
Their authorization will depend on various factors, such as the current course of the coronavirus pandemic, whether the courthouse will allow trial participants to maintain social distance and if there’s enough staffing for a trial.
At Billington’s hearing Wednesday, Corsones said the local court submitted to state court officials a jury trial restart plan on Oct. 30 but has not yet received a go-signal. The courthouse, he said, was also still waiting for an airflow assessment as part of the Judiciary’s pandemic-safety measures.
A Banner inquiry with Vermont’s Building and General Services Department on Wednesday revealed that all state courthouses have already undergone airflow evaluations. The department owns, maintains and operates the courthouses among 240 buildings statewide.
The airflow evaluation reports are now being put together for submission to the Judiciary, said BGS Acting Commissioner Jennifer Fitch. She couldn’t immediately say when the Bennington County courthouses were evaluated.
The goal of the evaluation, Fitch said, was to work toward allowing as much fresh air as possible to circulate inside the buildings. The Judiciary also requested the courthouses to be fitted with finer air filters, which she said have been ordered and are “due to arrive shortly.”
Hundreds of Vermont inmates are currently detained while awaiting trial.