The trial began in Ghent yesterday of a young woman accused of the murder of a child, the first new jury trial since the introduction of the nationwide lockdown in mid-March.
Jury trials in Belgium are rare occasions in any case, but the sheer numbers of people involved in being brought into close proximity with each other made the process impossible to organise at a time of maximum restrictions.
The opening yesterday of the trial in Ghent showed that the problems are not over.
The first step in any assizes trial is to impanel a jury. That requires selecting 12 people from a pool of eligible candidates of 90 people. In the justice palace of Ghent, the only place to gather all of those people together safely turned out to be the canteen.
From the pool of 90, 12 are chosen by lot, and some may ask to be excused, while others may be challenged by defence or prosecution, until the numbers have been whittled down to 12 jurors and 12 alternates, who can step in at any time if something happens to a juror.
The jurors were yesterday given a set of instructions particular to the times: they must wear a mask during the proceedings, and use their own pen to take notes.
Also present yesterday was another group of people – the relatives of the victim and the accused alike, the press and media. They were kept out of the canteen but were allowed to follow proceedings from the corridor.
““They can follow the selection, because the canteen has glass walls,” explained Martin Minnaert, spokesperson for the prosecutor’s office.
The trial itself now begins on Friday, in the courtroom this time, where the tighter corona rules will apply.
“The presiding judge will coordinate everything and ensure that everyone is far enough apart,” Minnaert said. “For example, some jury members will have to sit on the public benches. Of course, that means that there can be less public.”
The accused in the trial is Megan D., now aged 20, who is accused of having killed the two-year-old daughter of her new boyfriend in 2018.
D. claims she put the child in the bath then went into another room briefly. When she returned to the bathroom, the child had drowned. She called emergency services.
The prosecution disputes the claim, arguing that she had not only delayed before calling the ambulance, but also took the child out of the bath and neglected to mention she had been in the water. Only when water was found in the child’s lungs at autopsy did the cause of death become clear.
The child’s father was absent working at the time of the incident. The trial resumes on Friday.