First Post-COVID-19 Criminal Trial Held in Venango County

| July 3, 2020

VENANGO CO., Pa. (EYT) – Venango County recently held its first criminal trial since the COVID-19 Pandemic closed down or limited many courts across Pennsylvania.

According to Assistant Public Defender, Eric A. Padin, Esq., Venango County is not yet scheduling jury trials but did hold a bench trial on Monday, June 29, during which Russell L. McMillen was found not guilty of DUI charges filed in September of 2019.

Padin noted that things remain “a little different” in the courtroom at the moment, due to the continued COVID-19 mitigation efforts.

Witnesses are testifying from the tables set further back from the judge’s bench than the traditional witness box, and everyone in the courtroom is wearing masks.

“We’re all trying to talk loud enough for everyone to hear (through the masks), and still practicing social distancing,” Padin said.

While jury trials and civil trials remain on hold in Venango County, the court opening up for bench trials is one step closer to getting back to business as usual.

In neighboring Clarion County, things have moved forward somewhat more quickly, as the county’s first post-COVID-19 jury trial was held on Friday, June 26. Court documents indicate the jury found 24-year-old Spencer Gene Rudolph, of Shippenville, guilty on one ungraded felony count of manufacture, delivery, or possession with intent to manufacture or deliver of a controlled substance; three ungraded misdemeanor counts of possession of a controlled substance, and one ungraded misdemeanor count of use/possession of drug paraphernalia related to a drug case from February 2019.

Clarion County’s next jury trial, a burglary and terroristic threats case against 35-year-old Ryan Scott Cunningham, of Fairchance, Pa., is scheduled for Tuesday, July 7.

On July 29, Spencer Rudolph is scheduled to stand for another jury trial, this time along with co-defendant 32-year-old Aaron Ernest Johnson, of Pittsburgh. They are both facing first-degree felony drug delivery resulting in death and related charges stemming from the November of 2018 overdose death of a Clarion man.

Slike noted there have been many changes to accommodate the COVID-19 restrictions, including bringing potential jurors in for jury selection in much smaller groups at set intervals rather than all at once.

During current trials, the jurors are being seated at least six feet apart throughout the courtroom, rather than the traditional jury box.

The court is requiring witnesses to wear masks as they are brought in past the jurors to testify and have both masks and wipes available for everyone in the courtroom.

“We just starting to get back to something like normal, with some adjustments,” Slike said.

With the court still not open to spectators, only those directly involved with the court functions, Slike noted the size of Clarion County’s main courtroom definitely allows for the necessary social distancing.

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