Butler County preparing for first criminal trial since coronavirus slowdown began

Changes have been made to the Butler County courtroom that is scheduled to hose the county's first trial since delays caused by the coronavirus. CONTRIBUTED
Changes have been made to the Butler County courtroom that is scheduled to hose the county's first trial since delays caused by the coronavirus. CONTRIBUTED

In March, coronavirus concerns coupled with stay-at-home orders put much of the court system on hold, but Butler County is moving forward this month with its first planned jury trial. And it will look much different.

On July 27, the trial of a Middletown man charged with shooting and killing at teen in December is scheduled to begin in Butler County Common Pleas Court.

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“Going forward, it will be unlike pre-COVID trials,” said Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser. “It is new world out here … we have some guidance, but not enough that is going to carry us through from the Supreme Court on the time limitations that are tolled because of this virus as to when cases have to be tried. So we have got to move forward with trials or we are going to have some major problems with dismissals and I can’t abide that and neither can the judges.”

Mezahn Demarco Amison, 21, of Manchester Avenue, is facing charges of murder and felonious assault for allegedly killing Zachariah Wallace, 17, on Dec. 6. In May, Judge Jennifer McElfresh postponed Amison’s trial, citing coronavirus concerns and set the new trial date.

The trial will not be held in McElfresh’s courtroom at the Government Service Center, but in a courtroom outfitted with safety precautions. Plexiglass has been installed in a visiting judge’s courtroom that separates jurors, attorneys, witnesses and the judge.

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“We are going to do everything we can to protect the citizens coming into the building.” said Wayne Gilkison, court administrator.

Masks are required in the hallways of the court wing, and those entering will have a temperature check at the security entrance, but it is up to individual judges to determine if masks must be worn in the courtroom.

Amison’s defense attorney, John Kaspar, said he has heard the courtroom referred to as the “plastic palace” and believes there are concerns with setup, including masks on witnesses.

“It is going to be interesting,” Kaspar said. “The way it is being approached may suggest the jury trial is too dangerous to proceed because we are in this bubble. It is rife with problems that could affect this trial, but the balance is (my client) also can’t wait forever.”

Kaspar said he wants to ensure the jury can both hear and see witnesses clearly.

“Certainly I object to anybody testifying in a mask so that you can’t see their face. Our evaluation of credibility of someone in our community requires that you have the ability to observe everything about them when the testify. You read body language and all sorts of things, if you can’t see that, it is a problem,” Kaspar said.

Amison remains housed in the county jail in lieu of $1 million bond.

“He has been sitting there patiently and at times impatiently based on the supreme court’s suspension of time, He maintains his innocence,” Kaspar said.

Gmoser said it will be up to the judge to decide how witnesses testify and in some cases wearing a mask may not be objectionable, such as giving data.

“I am not opposed to anybody testifying with a mask on. The words are what is important. If the defense feels that the expression of a person’s face is important to an understanding of a testimony, it is going to be up to a judge to make a call on that,” Gmoser said.

He added in the future he can see appeals across the state on this and other issues.

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