Chicago’s first jury trial of pandemic ends with guilty verdict — and praise from jurors

When the federal trial ended, the judge told the jurors, “You’ve shown extraordinary dedication to serving your community. It makes me proud to be an American.”

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Dirksen Federal Courthouse

Chicago’s first jury trial since the start of the coronavirus pandemic ended Thursday when federal jurors, clad in face masks, convicted an Ottawa man of threatening an FBI task force officer and others.

Sun-Times File

Chicago’s first jury trial since the start of the coronavirus pandemic ended Thursday when federal jurors, clad in face masks, convicted an Ottawa man of threatening an FBI task force officer and others.

That trial played out amid the “new normal” that also includes hand sanitizer and constant social distancing, though. So after the trial ended, a few jurors offered their own verdict on the new safety protocols for jury trials at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse.

“I felt like they were extremely thorough,” Elizabeth Reihl said. “I think they walked through the juror experience from the very beginning — from where you park. I can tell that they looked through the full process and did every checkpoint.”

Under the new jury trial plan at Dirksen, jurors have been spread out beyond the traditional jury box, and they’ve been allowed to take breaks and deliberate in a separate courtroom. Public seating has been limited, and witnesses have been asked to wipe down the witness stand when their testimony ends. Jurors have also been given plastic bags filled with supplies.

“They’ve got a little hand sanitizer in there and sanitizing wipes,” said Elizabeth Boyd, who said she also had a positive experience serving as a juror this week.

Reihl said jury service is a chance to see democracy up close. Having served on two state court juries previously, she called it a “beautiful, beautiful thing, and it’s nothing to get out of or try to avoid.”

U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang acknowledged the jurors’ unusual service following the verdict that found Robert Haas, 40, guilty on 13 criminal counts.

“This was the first jury trial that has been held in this courthouse since early March,” Chang said. “You’ve shown extraordinary dedication to serving your community. It makes me proud to be an American.”

Earlier Thursday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Barry Jonas delivered his closing argument while masked and seated at the government table. He still moved around in his chair and gestured with his hands for effect, telling jurors that Haas was an “angry person” with anti-Semitic beliefs. He said that wasn’t why Haas was on trial, though.

“This case is not about his beliefs,” Jonas said. “It’s not about his anger. It’s not about his hatred. This case is about the threats.”

Prosecutors said Haas crossed a legal line when he leveled several threats toward an FBI task force officer and others through text messages, voicemails and online social media posts, as well as in recorded comments following his arrest in June 2019.

“I don’t care if it’s a cop, prosecutor, judge, politician or elite,” Haas allegedly wrote in one online post. “You try to stop me from telling the truth I will cut every throat in your home. Try me!”

Haas represented himself and testified Wednesday with help of a stand-by attorney appointed by the judge. During his cross-examination, he admitted making several of the comments at issue. Assistant U.S. Attorney Erin Kelly even asked him whether he believed the FBI task force officer should be killed.

“In a way, yes, I do,” Haas said.

During his closing argument Thursday, Haas said he was goaded into making the comments by federal agents who tried to chill his First Amendment rights. He previously told the jurors he lived in Moscow for a year and “found a lot of things that the federal government and the people who provide our media to us are hiding from us.”

“They don’t want you to see the real threat because it’s so disgusting that it will change your opinion,” Haas said Thursday.

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