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‘Radically different’ service for federal jurors as Chicago courthouse resumes jury trials

Robert Haas of Ottawa is on trial this week for making repeated threats toward an FBI task force officer and others. He insists he’s being ‘railroaded.’

Dirksen Federal Courthouse
Sun-Times File

The new, pandemic-era jury box takes up nearly half the courtroom on the 25th floor of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse.

Four jurors share the old box used before the pandemic. The rest are spread out where the public once sat in wooden benches. The benches on that side of the courtroom are gone, though. The jurors instead sit in padded chairs, before individual video screens. All of them wear masks, and a low black curtain separates the group from the rest of the courtroom.

In what appears to be Chicago’s first criminal jury trial since the coronavirus pandemic began, Robert Haas of Ottawa is on trial this week for allegedly making repeated threats toward an FBI task force officer and others.

The trial means the return of familiar routines to the courthouse in Chicago’s Loop. But it also puts to the test new coronavirus protocols meant to help Chicago’s federal court get back to business. And U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang warned jurors their experience would be “radically different” than it would have been before the pandemic began.

For example, there’s the ceremonial courtroom down the hall from the trial. It’s the building’s largest courtroom, where some of its most important events take place.

“Now it’s your jury room,” Chang told the 12 jurors and two alternates chosen for a trial where social distancing is key.

Technology has also played a greater role in logistics. So have masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and microphone covers for individual speakers.

Adding to the potential turbulence, Haas is acting as his own attorney. He repeatedly ignored the judge’s rulings as testimony began Tuesday, and at one point he declared, “I’m being railroaded, your honor.” The government rested its case Tuesday, and Haas is expected to testify in his own defense, likely Wednesday.

Judges have openly wondered whether jurors would show up when trials resumed at the Dirksen courthouse. But jury selection went relatively smoothly Monday. New written questionnaires meant hardly any questions were asked within public earshot, though.

When opening statements began Tuesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Erin Kelly spoke through a mask, standing beside the government table. She told jurors Haas holds anti-Semitic beliefs. And though she said a person is allowed to have those thoughts, she said Haas “crossed a legal line” when he threatened the FBI task force officer and “threatened to kill people over and over again” online.

In turn, Haas told jurors that, “my beliefs have everything to do with why this is happening, and it’s a long story how it started.” He said he lived for a year in Moscow and “found a lot of things that the federal government and the people who provide our media to us are hiding from us.”

“It’s up to you to decide what a true threat is,” Haas said.

Illinois State Police Officer Richard Mullen later testified about driving Haas from Ottawa to Chicago after Haas’ arrest in June 2019. During the ride, Mullen said Haas made several comments about the FBI task force officer involved in his arrest. Prosecutors played some of the recorded comments to the jury.

“This mother f---er is going to pay for this sh—, f--- this bullsh—,” Haas allegedly said in one. “You never know who or what you’re playing with. I don’t think this guy can protect himself from me, really.”

When Mullen’s testimony ended, the judge had one more request for the officer: He asked him to don a pair of gloves — and wipe down his seat for the next witness.