On the first day of Rock County’s first jury trial in more than a year, Judge Karl Hanson helped set bags under the chairs for 14 jurors spread 6 feet apart at the Rock County Job Center.
In a sign of the pandemic times, the bags contained hand sanitizer, masks, tissues, gloves and notebooks.
“I’m going to ask for your patience today because we’re going to take this process nice and slowly,” Hanson told the room of prospective jurors before 12 of them plus two alternates were picked Monday.
“We want to make sure that we make this as comfortable and efficient for you—and as safe for you—as possible,” he continued. “You’ll note that we’ve taken as many health precautions as we possibly could.”
When Hanson introduced himself and the lawyers trying the case, he let them remove their masks so everyone could see their faces—but he said they would take “a nice, deep breath” before doing so.
Rock County Court officials wrapped up 31% fewer criminal cases in 2020 than in 2019, quantifying one way that COVID-19 brought the court system to what one judge called “almost a screeching halt.”
Jury trials are relatively rare in Rock County, but the pandemic made them even more uncommon. It had been a little more than a year since the county last held one.
The coronavirus brought the Rock County Court system to what one local judge called “almost a screeching halt.” The county held most—if not all, at some points—of its hearings virtually over Zoom, and it finished 31% fewer criminal cases than the year before.
But trials are far too complicated to hold over Zoom. So cases needing to go before a jury have had to wait—until Monday.
The primary logistical problem on display Monday afternoon was sound. The room at the job center on Janesville’s south side was big and open to accommodate social distancing, but the parties had to spend time throughout the day fixing their microphones.
Judge John Wood, who has been the lead judge overseeing plans to hold a trial at the job center, said Monday the sound was the “weakest link” but that he was happy with how proceedings had been going otherwise.
Rock County’s first trial since the beginning of March 2020 is for Daniel Robinson of Beloit. Hanson is the judge for this case, Gerald Urbik is the prosecutor, and Faun Moses and Kevin Smith are the public defenders.
Wood said last week that having a case with a defendant in custody and with a speedy trial demand was a priority to finish as soon as possible.
“I think we are all—and when I say all, I’m talking about the judges, the prosecutors, the defense bar—I think we’re all anxious to get back to some degree of normal operations. Let’s just put it that way,” he said.
Robinson’s trial is expected to be held entirely at the job center in what judges have called “Courtroom K.” But Wood has said he hopes to eventually use the job center only for jury selection and then convening trials the courthouse.
Jury selection involves bringing in dozens of potential jurors before the final set is picked. That made social distancing practically impossible at the courthouse.
At the job center, chairs were spaced to accommodate 6 feet of space around them.
Officials built a makeshift bench from which the judge can preside, as well as a witness stand with plexiglass and a small room for in-custody defendants to wait during breaks.
The plexiglass was another logistical problem on display Monday because the outline of the barriers blocked some parties from being able to see each other. So officials removed some of the barriers.
Masks were required, but compliance appeared to be as consistent as in other public places, such as in the grocery store. Everyone had masks, but some at times left their noses uncovered, others pulled down masks to talk, and others took them down to eat or drink.
Hanson, after asking if she was OK with it, also had a woman take off her mask during her testimony.
Wood said the plan to start holding jury trials was related to the county’s phased reopening plan. The judges thought they would be able to hold trials in the fall, but the virus spread within Rock County worsened.
“We’re constantly reviewing the county dashboard to see where things are,” he said. “That’s what is driving our determination about whether or not we believe we can safely bring in jurors, the parties, their attorneys, the court personnel and the public—and keep everybody safe.”
The next trial in Rock County could happen as soon as next week.
A Janesville attorney who wrote a book about a shocking 2005 murder case is being sued for saying the justice system convicted the wrong person.
Roger Merry self-published “Lies for her Master” last year. The book’s first line accuses David Sidoff of murdering Ardelle Sturzenegger of Janesville.
Sturzenegger was an 88-year-old homeless woman from Janesville who was known to carry a large amount of cash. She was shot, and her body was found wrapped in a tarp on a Monticello property rented by a young couple, David and Mary Sidoff.
A jury in 2006 found Mary Sidoff, David’s then-wife, guilty of the murder.
David Sidoff is suing Merry in Rock County Court, saying Merry’s allegations against him are false and made either negligently or with malice, and that the false statements damaged Sidoff. The lawsuit asks for unspecified punitive and actual money damages.
Sidoff told The Gazette the book destroys his character by calling him a murderer, among other offenses. The book has resurrected past conversations with his three teenage children, Sidoff said.
“If you’ve got teenagers, you understand how damaging things like this can be,” Sidoff said.
Sidoff is an information technology consultant, and word of the book’s contents has reached his clients, resulting in “delicate conversations” with them, Sidoff said.
“It took me a lot of years to develop a reputation and name for myself,” Sidoff said. “… Now I have a book out there that in black and white blatantly is calling me a murderer, amongst other things.”
Sidoff said new clients “have slowed to almost nothing, and so it puts a big fear into my ability to provide for my family because of the false claims and accusations that are made.”
The Sidoffs divorced after the trial. David said it was Mary who alerted him about the book.
Mary Sidoff is serving a life sentence but can be considered for release with extended supervision after 45 years.
Mary confessed to detectives in 2005, saying Sturzenegger was holding her 1-year-old son and would not let go, so she went upstairs, got a handgun and pointed it at Sturzenegger.
Sidoff said she thought the gun’s safety was on, but it went off accidentally.
Merry, who represented Mary, is convinced David actually shot Sturzenegger and then convinced his wife that she would not be held accountable if she told a story about protecting her child, the book indicates.
Merry spoke with The Gazette briefly but then declined an interview for this story.
Mary originally confessed to detectives that she killed Sturzenegger, but at trial she said David did it and persuaded her to lie to detectives.
Mary recanted after her conviction in a letter to Green County Court Judge James Beer, in which she said she had lied on the stand and that David had nothing to do with the murder.
Mary Sidoff first encountered Sturzenegger when Sturzenegger was a patient at the psychiatric unit at UW Hospital in Madison, where Mary worked as a certified nursing assistant. It was there that Mary learned patient Sturzenegger carried cash with her, reportedly $55,000 to $60,000.
The Sidoffs were in debt, according to news reports, and after Sturzenegger’s release, Mary tracked Sturzenegger to a Janesville motel, where she persuaded Sturzenegger to stay with her family in Monticello. While there, Mary apparently tried to persuade Sturzenegger to give her a loan.
After the murder, the Sidoffs paid off debts and went on a “spending spree,” according to news reports.
David Sidoff pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors, receiving stolen property of $2,500 or less and resisting or obstructing an officer.
Gov. Tony Evers’ proposed capital budget for 2021-22 includes building projects in Whitewater and Delavan totaling more than $84 million.
The budget calls for renovations and additions to two aging buildings on the UW-Whitewater campus and the construction of a new residence hall at the Wisconsin School for the Deaf in Delavan.
Project funding depends on whether the Republican-controlled Legislature and Democrat Evers can agree on at least part of Evers’ $2.38 billion capital budget request, which the state Building Commission will take up Wednesday.
A new Huff Hall dormitory would be built at the School for the Deaf at a cost of $25 million.
The dormitory would be built on the footprint of Walker Hall, which has been deemed unsafe, is now closed and would be demolished.
The new dormitory would include apartment spaces where students could learn daily living skills, classroom and office space for teaching and outreach and a commons/cafeteria.
The apartments would be part of an initiative to prepare the students to live outside of an institutional setting and become functionally and financially independent after graduation.
The new space would comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and be more energy efficient.
The existing Huff Hall was once slated for renovation, but officials determined the cost would be “significantly higher, and it would be more cost effective to demolish the old building and build a new dormitory instead,” according to the proposal.
The existing Huff Hall would remain in place until the new one is ready. The project is said to replace or diminish the need for previously planned projects, such as a tunnel between Walker Hall and the rest of campus and the continual renovation of the current Walker and Huff Halls.
Construction would begin in March 2022 and end in March 2024.
The budget calls for improvements costing $59.44 million to two aging academic buildings on the UW-Whitewater campus.
Heide Hall was built in 1965 and Winther Hall in 1969.
Winther Hall houses the College of Education and Professional Studies, one of the campus’ larger programs, along with Psychology and Race and Ethnic Studies. Heide Hall is home to the Department of Communication, Office of Institutional Research and Planning & Academic Assessment, and the English Language Academy.
Winther’s “original building infrastructure” is at the end of its useful life and does not support contemporary teacher education instructional methods, according to the budget.
“The (Winther) building systems are failing, architectural finishes are in poor condition and the single-pane non-insulated windows are not energy efficient,” according to the budget.
“A single, undersized passenger elevator serves six floors, and considering the campus mission to serve students with disabilities, any unreliability of the elevator causes significant concerns and additional stress for students and staff with mobility conditions,” the document continues. “Building users have been trapped by the elevator outages approximately 10 times during the last two years.”
At Heide Hall, “the single and undersized passenger elevator … is inadequate for its demand and volume of use, has become unreliable due to age and lack of available repair and replacement parts, and has experienced multiple instances of being offline for long periods of time ... Frequent equipment breakdowns have caused scheduled classes to be moved to other locations …, alternate work plans to be spontaneously implemented, and disruptions and hardships for students with disabilities.”
The projects, to be completed by 2027, would build additions to both halls, providing accessible restrooms, improved vertical circulation and new collaboration spaces on each floor.
Mechanical, electrical/telecommunications and plumbing networks would be replaced and reconfigured as necessary. Capacity for electrical power and telecommunications would be increased to meet federal requirements for teacher-education programs.
Construction would start in March 2025 and end in July 2027.
Joel Brennan, secretary of the state Department of Administration, said it’s likely the building commission will split 4-4 along party lines, as it did for the last budget, and in that case, the capital budget will go to the Legislature as proposed.
While Republicans control the Legislature, they must be mindful of Evers’ veto power.
Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, who sits on the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, said she supported an upgrade to the old Huff Hall in the 2019-21 budget, which wasn’t approved.
Loudenbeck said she will review project information so she can work with colleagues to choose projects most worthy of funding.
Caryl J. Hatfield
Judith Jean (Joyce) Hoy
Richard J. Lechner
Earl “Bob” Paulson
Anastasia “Stella” (Zemanek) Protteau
Richard Anthony Scherdell
Ruth Mildred Schloesser
Susan M. Schole
Stephen A. Sippy
Arlene L. Sommer