The jury selection process for an upcoming trial in Christian County may move off of courthouse grounds and into a school building.

Christian County’s two circuit judges explained elements of an out-of-the-jury-box plan to the Christian County Commission at a meeting to discuss use of county government property held May 21.

Carl C. Ferguson, 40, is charged with 27 counts for alleged crimes occurring from June 2015 to Aug. 10, 2016. He has been in the Christian County Jail in Ozark since Aug. 11, 2016, and is the jail’s longest tenured inmate. Ferguson has been jailed for three years and nine months, or 1,379 days.

Ferguson’s jury trial is scheduled to begin July 13, with the voir dire hearing, or the selection of jurors. The actual trial proceedings will take place at the Christian County Circuit Court building in Ozark, but the jury selection is slated to happen offsite through an arrangement between the court and the Ozark School District.

Christian County Presiding Judge Laura Johnson explained that the COVID-19 spread prevention guidelines set forth by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and by the Missouri Supreme Court. The present limit is 14 people, including courtroom staff.

“We can only have so many people in the courtroom at a time,” Johnson said. “Depending on how long the social distancing restrictions are in place, we’re going to have to be really creative about how many people are in a jury trial.”

In a typical jury selection, a judge would bring in at least 80, if not 100 potential jurors to undergo questioning and screening by the trial attorneys for both the prosecution and the defense. In the pre-COVID-19 world, those prospective jurors would all sit together in the gallery of a courtroom as jury selection took place.

With public health guidelines dictating that all unrelated persons are to be spaced at least 6 feet apart from one another, the traditional way of conducting voir dire hearings is impossible in Christian County’s courtrooms.

“We’ll have to come up with more space than that. Unfortunately, it creates a logistical difficulty for everybody,” Johnson said.

Social distancing is a temporary requirement, but Johnson said that the Missouri Supreme Court could keep distancing orders in place for courts that are more restrictive and/or longer lasting than general public health orders.

Rather than screen jurors at a maximum of 10 at a time for the Ferguson trial, the court will take the case to either an auditorium or a gymnasium on an Ozark School District campus.

“We’re working right now with the sheriff’s department on how we might make that happen,” Johnson said. 

Historic courthouse room use

Using school district facilities will work once for the Ferguson case, but the judges don’t see it as a long-term solution.

“They can’t really have us over there once school starts, so what we have to have available to us, if we’ve got a jury panel reporting of 100 people, we’re going to have to have four or five different locations for those people to check into and to wait,” Johnson said.

Waiting areas would potentially include the Ozark VFW building located across South First Street from the Christian County Justice Center, a grand jury room and a small courtroom that Associate Circuit Judge Jessica Kruse typically uses to conduct family court.

The Christian County Commission met with the judges to discuss the potential uses of the second floor courtroom in the Christian County Historic Courthouse. It’s a courtroom that Circuit Judge Jennifer Growcock stopped using when the new Christian County CIrcuit Court building two blocks south of the Historic Courthouse opened March 11, 2019.

Christian County has six courtrooms. Four of those, Johnson said, are suitable for jury trials, but for jury selection, the court needs even more space in order to maintain social distancing measures.

That’s where utilizing the second floor courtroom in the old courthouse factors into the plan.

“I’m not trying to be unreasonable about the use of that space,” Johnson said. “As we sit here today, I can’t tell you how much we’re going to need to be using that space over the next, maybe, six months, but that’s something that we’re definitely going to be looking into. It’s very definitely a probability that we’re going to need to use that space.

Eastern District Commissioner Mike Robertson said that he and his two fellow commissioners plan to move some of their meetings upstairs into the courtroom, as opposed to holding meetings in the much smaller commission chambers on the ground floor.

“After this virus is over, and if we have the ability to go up and hold our commission meetings up there, that’s what I’m talking about, after this is all said and done and we can get back to normal,” Robertson said.

“It’s common sense to me that if you have that available, you should utilize it for the safety of everyone,” Presiding Commissioner Ralph Phillips said.

Communication will be crucial.

“At the end of the day, the lines of communication start breaking down in these type of situations,” Phillips said. “I just wanted everybody to sit down and talk.”

Johnson said she understands the commissioner’s desire to use the space in order to hold hearings where anyone who wishes may safely attend, but maintained that in the event of a scheduling conflict, a court hearing should take precedence over a county commission meeting.

Johnson suggested that the commission move to create a policy allowing for commission meetings and for court hearings, or courtroom overflow, to happen in the upstairs courtroom, but for the court uses to hold priority.

“I want to continue to have this on the record, that I don’t think there is any question, and I talked to the clerk of the Supreme Court this morning to make sure I wasn’t overstepping my bounds, and I don’t think there is any question that I have the authority over the use of that space. Courtrooms in courthouses are funny things, because there is no question that the public areas of the courthouse are under the purview of the commission, of a county building. I believe there is also no question that the court spaces in those courthouses are under the purview of the presiding judge,” Johnson said.

Phillips, whose background includes more than 15 years of work conducting high-threat enforcement and protective work for the U.S. Marshals Service, is experienced when it comes to courtroom security. Christian County, he said, finds itself in an interesting place.

“I’m used to working in a different environment where we have more judges than we have courtrooms. I’ve just—I’ve never been in an environment where we have more courtrooms than we have judges,” Phillips said.

Furthermore, the outcome of the 2020 U.S. Census may change the landscape of the 38th Judicial Circuit, which encompasses all of Christian County. If the population reaches six figures, the circuit could opt to add an elected position for another judge.

“As soon as we hit 100,000, we have the right to another judge. Now, it has to be funded, but we have the right to a fifth judge, and there is a good chance that that fifth judge is going to be in that historic courtroom and use that jury room and use that office,” Johnson said. 

Case against Carl Ferguson

Ferguson is charged with three counts first-degree rape or attempted rape; four counts statutory rape, sexual intercourse with a person less than 14 years old, serious physical injury, displaying a deadly weapon/dangerous instrument subjecting victim to sex with one person, victim less than 12 years old; four counts first-degree sodomy or attempted sodomy; three counts first-degree child molestation; 13 counts first-degree sodomy or attempted sodomy, victim less than 12 years old.

According to the probable cause statement, officers were dispatched to pick up the victim from school after she disclosed the abuse. During a forensic interview at the Child Advocacy Center, she told interviewers that Ferguson raped her “probably 40 or 50” times, and would bribe her candy bars or suckers to discourage her from telling anyone.

Ferguson also allegedly showed the victim pornography. However, post Miranda, Ferguson denied all the allegations.

“Carl adamantly denied having sex or molesting (the victim),” the probable cause statement says. “Carl also did not believe she had been molested by anyone, because no other male besides him watched her.”

A warrant was issued for Ferguson’s arrest Aug. 12, 2016, and served Aug. 15, 2016, by the Christian County Sheriff’s Office.

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