Even after jury trials are allowed to resume in Alabama, Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich says the COVID-19 safety measures implemented in local courtrooms are likely to delay a dozen high-profile capital murder trials including some that have already been pending in the system for years.
Last week, Rich told Lagniappe her office reached an agreement with Presiding Circuit Judge Michael Youngpeter to delay at least 12 capital murder trials, including five seeking the death penalty, until at least 2021, because of challenges created by safety measures adopted amid the ongoing pandemic.
According to court records, some of the death penalty trials delayed by current restriction on jury pool sizes include those of Greg Hackett, Marco Perez and Larry Jackson. Hackett is accused of killing an 89-year-old man during a botched robbery in 2017; Perez is charged with the murder of Mobile police officer Sean Tuder last year; and Jackson was arrested in 2017 in connection to the killing of two men in Prichard, one of whom was the son of a Mobile County school board member.
The other nine cases are all capital murder charges, though only two others are seeking the death penalty. While the arrangement was described as mutual, Rich expressed some frustration with the delay. She also seemed worried jurors may feel unsafe if COVID-19 is still active when trials resume.
“The justice system is certainly an essential service and extreme measures are being taken to ensure the safety of the public and everyone involved in the process, especially those who agree to serve as jurors,” Rich said. “When the Alabama Supreme Court does allow jury trials to resume, these safety precautions will be in place, and we will need citizens to perform their civic duty.”
Currently, one of the biggest challenges for courts has been finding spaces large enough to sort through hundreds of potential jurors while maintaining social distancing recommendations from health officials.
Youngpeter said jury assembly rooms at Government Plaza might see 300 to 350 people during an average jury week, but when social distancing six feet apart, only about 50 could fit at a time. According to Youngpeter, regular trials with few potential jurors and lower stakes might be able to make the space work, but capital cases — especially those seeking the death penalty — come with a higher burden.
“In capital cases, we generally have at least 100 potential jurors who have to be questioned, and it’s just hard to find a place in the courthouse where that many people can gather and still socially distance,” Youngpeter said. “We want these cases tried, but we asked for a few months to reset. Maybe by then we’ll see a vaccine or be back to something close to normalcy. Right now, it would be completely irresponsible for us to pack that many people into any room but especially one that size.”
The Alabama Supreme Court has tentatively scheduled to allow jury trials to resume in mid-September, though it’s up to each circuit how and when they proceed with their normal court operations. Youngpeter said he’s had some discussions with the city of Mobile about possibly using the Civic Center to help with the initial qualifying and screening of jurors when trials resume. Local courts have also considered implementing some kind of digital system that would allow those summoned for jury duty to answer qualifying questions and provide additional information about their health remotely.
The issue of masks and face coverings, which are required to even enter the elevator that goes up to the courtrooms in Government Plaza, has also caused some concern for lawyers. During a hearing in Perez’s case last week, the first thing Rich did was make an oral motion asking all of the attorneys involved be allowed to proceed with their masks off — a motion Circuit Judge Ben Brooks granted.
The state is seeking the death penalty against Perez, whose attorneys argue he fatally shot Tuder in 2019 because he didn’t realize he was a police officer. Because the stakes are so high and the potential punishment so severe, the prosecution and defense both raised concerns about what impact masks would have once Perez’s case finally gets to the trial phase.
Even if the trial occurred today, Brooks said witnesses would have to testify without wearing a mask, which he believes could be done safely because of the plexiglass around them. He argued small facial mannerisms help jurors weigh witnesses’ credibility on the stand and expressed concern that allowing witnesses to cover their faces could infringe upon defendants’ rights to confront their accusers.
Defense attorney Dennis Knizley argued being able to see the faces of jurors is also important because attorneys have to judge their reactions during trial and during the jury selection process. It remains to be seen whether the court will require jurors to wear masks when trials resume, though Youngpeter said, at least to some extent, judges will be able to exercise discretion in their courtrooms.
Some safety measures, like a mask requirement, socially distanced seating and plexiglass screens between witnesses, judges and court employees, have already been implemented. When trials do resume, Youngpeter said jurors are likely to be seated in the gallery to give them more space, which could result in the public and members of the media having to watch a live feed of trials in a separate room.
Speaking to Lagniappe, he emphasized the local bench is taking COVID-19 very seriously.
Because they bring people from all over the region together in one place, Youngpeter said courtrooms can be “natural spreaders” of infection and have the potential to spur outbreaks. He also said, while people can avoid stores and other public spaces if they feel unsafe, people are required to come to court, even if they feel unsafe.
“Some of these things like masks requirements have become politicized, but this isn’t a political issue. It’s about safety,” he said. “I can walk into Publix, and if I see no one has a mask on, I can walk out, but we’re forcing people to come down here to the courthouse. They’re being summoned, and if you’re going to do that, you have an extra responsibility to make sure it’s a safe space.”
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