The Capital Judicial Center in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — The first jury trial in Kennebec County in many months got underway Monday, with everyone at the Capital Judicial Center courtroom in Augusta wearing masks and safely distanced from one another.

Unmasking only happened when witnesses took the stand or when the judge delivered instructions to the jury.

The precautions showed how local jury trials are set to resume amid the coronavirus pandemic, as people receive vaccines and the judicial system addresses a backlog of cases put on hold over the past year.

No jury trials have been held at the Capital Judicial Center, or at courtrooms across most of Maine, since September due to concerns about spreading COVID-19.

Witnesses who testified Monday in the trial of Timothy Barclift, 46, of Bronx, New York, on an aggravated drug trafficking charge were allowed to remove their masks while testifying on the witness stand, which had a Plexiglas shield attached to it.

But other than when Superior Court Justice William Stokes removed his mask while he spoke — from his Plexiglas-surrounded spot on the bench — to jurors to give them instructions in the case, all others in the courtroom kept their masks on and sought to maintain safe distances from others.

“This is the first time in 40 years of being in court I’ve ever had to address a jury behind a mask,” Barclift’s lawyer, William Baghdoyan, said during his opening statement. “I hope it’s the last time it happens this way.”

Stokes allowed witnesses to decide whether to wear their masks or take them off during their testimony. The two witnesses, both police officers, who testified Monday chose to take them off, one citing concern his voice would be muffled if he kept it on.

The witness testimony area had a sheet of Plexiglas in front of it, and between it and Stokes on the bench. There were also Plexiglas panels surrounding Stokes and on the desks of lawyers for the defense and prosecution.

Stokes removed his mask while he was giving his instructions to the jury but remained masked otherwise. He explained to jurors that giving them instructions would involve him talking a lot, and he was concerned if he talked through the mask, he could hyperventilate.

Prosecutor Katie Sibley, a state assistant attorney general, and Baghdoyan both wore masks throughout the trial Monday. Their voices could be heard clearly, even from the back of the courtroom, where members of the public and news media were seated.

The court session ended early Monday, after a witness scheduled to testify did not show up due to a medical issue, The proceeding is expected to resume Tuesday.

The 14 jurors, each wearing a mask, spread out in the courtroom, with four sitting in the jury box, where the entire jury would normally be seated, and four in the front of the gallery area, where members of the public would normally sit. Another six jurors sat in seats that resembled office chairs in the area between the jury box and the lawyers for the prosecution and defense.

The courtroom setup for the trial included closing off most of the gallery area, where the public would normally sit, to make room for four jurors.

Before the trial began, court marshals escorted the jurors into the courtroom, without the defense or prosecution present, in what Stokes said was a “dry run” to make sure jurors knew where they were going and where they would be seated.

Maine Drug Enforcement Agent Nathan Walker testified that police received a tip that Barclift had made multiple trips over the past several years from New York to Maine, and was going to be on a bus coming into Augusta on Jan. 22. 2020, and would be carrying a large quantity of cocaine.

Officers from MDEA, the State Police and the Augusta Police Department waited for the bus on which Barclift was thought to be a passenger. They stopped him as he was getting into an SUV at the Concord bus stop in north Augusta, and found about 300 grams of cocaine in a backpack Walker said Barclift had brought with him.

Walker said drugs in that quantity indicated they were meant to be sold, not consumed by one person. He said typically cocaine is sold as half-grams, grams or eight-balls, which he said are 3.5 grams.

Barclift told police he did not come to Maine with the intention of selling the cocaine. He said he came to party with friends, and share the cocaine with them, according to testimony and a video recording of Walker’s interview with Barclift.

Barclift reportedly told Walker he would visit with women he knew in Maine, have sex, share cocaine and work with developing artists here. Police said Barclift is a rap artist.

“It’s just me and my friends getting high as hell,” Barclift said on the recorded interview, insisting he was not selling drugs. “Ain’t nobody here saying they get their drugs off of me, unless I shared it with them.”

Sibley, in her opening statement, said the drugs found in Barclift’s backpack weighted 297 grams, an amount she said is not reasonable to believe was just to use and share.

“In no uncertain terms Mr. Barclift possessed a significant amount of cocaine,” she said. “He told the officer it was just for partying and he shares it with friends. I’d submit that is not reasonable. That someone would give away, for free, thousands of dollars worth of drugs.”

In the recorded interview, Barclift told Walker he had paid about $7,000 for the cocaine. He said it was the most he had ever brought with him on a trip to Maine.

Baghdoyan said police “found out he’s a black man from New York City and does rap music and brings drugs to Maine, and they leapt to the conclusion he deals drugs.”

“He was here to party, to get high with his friends, his fellow rap artists,” Baghdoyan said. “But he wasn’t selling anything.”

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