Man convicted of child sex assault in Bayfield County as jury trials resume in the Northland
While Northwestern Wisconsin counties are resuming proceedings with precautions aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19, jurors won't be summoned to Northeastern Minnesota courthouses until July.
A Minnesota man has been convicted of sexually assaulting a child in the first jury trial to be held in Wisconsin since most court operations were suspended in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mathew Robert Lauseng, 35, was found guilty Thursday by a Bayfield County jury on charges of second-degree sexual assault of a child under 16 and delivery of THC. The verdict came after a three-day trial held at the county courthouse in Washburn.
Bayfield County District Attorney Kim Lawton said the charges stemmed from an August 2018 incident in which the victim ran from the scene with her young siblings after being sexually assaulted by Lauseng. A Washburn police officer found her hiding behind the dumpsters at the Holiday Station gas station in Washburn. Lawton said a DNA sample collected from the victim's body identified Lauseng as the perpetrator.
“I’m incredibly proud of the victim for coming forward," said Lawton, who was assisted in the prosecution by Assistant District Attorney Katie Posewitz. "The child victim was brave the night of the assault, and incredibly compassionate and protective of her younger siblings. The child victim testified well, and was supported by family, an advocate and the victim witness coordinator.”
The trial held the distinction of being the first in the state to proceed under new public health guidelines associated with the coronavirus outbreak, according to Lawton. A statewide suspension of jury trials expired May 22.
Lawton said the initial jury pool was summoned to the high school auditorium, with courtroom proceedings streamed via Zoom. A retired doctor screened all trial participants each of the three days of trial, the courtroom saw frequent and extensive cleaning, and face masks and shields were worn.
“I’m grateful for the work of the court, taking every reasonable precaution to ensure the safety of the jurors, the defendant, the attorneys and all other court personnel," Lawton said. “The jurors seemed satisfied with the accommodations and provided additional feedback on how to improve. The pursuit of justice cannot stop just because we are in a pandemic. It is not fair to the victim nor the defendant. Being flexible and proactive is how the court system here was so successful proceeding to jury trial.”
Douglas County is preparing to reopen its doors to the public Monday . Judge George Glonek, who will preside over the first trial there, said prospective jurors will be required to wear masks, and anyone who may have been exposed to COVID-19 is being told to defer their jury service. Courtroom setup will be different, with jurors spread out in the gallery due to a lack of space in the jury box.
“We need to get things up and going, but at the same time, we’re going to take all necessary precautions that we can to ensure the health and safety of everyone,” Glonek told the Superior Telegram.
In Minnesota, a limited number of trials may get underway as soon as Monday under a pilot program initiated by the Minnesota Supreme Court. But courthouses largely remain closed to the public.
The 6th Judicial District, which includes St. Louis, Carlton, Cook and Lake counties, is continuing to encourage video and phone hearings for now. Chief Judge Sally Tarnowski said criminal trials won't resume until at least July 6, and civil cases won't go before a jury before Sept. 1.
"We will continue to handle as many hearings remotely as we can and for as long as we can," Tarnowski wrote in her most recent update to area stakeholders.
Regular public access should be restored to court records and service windows at most Minnesota courthouses by June 15, Chief Justice Lorie Gildea said in an order Thursday.
The state Judicial Branch has declared the courts to be in a "transitional phase," with court staff still encouraged to work from home when possible. New signage and physical barriers are also being added in courthouses, and face coverings are strongly encouraged for all employees and visitors.