SAN JOSE – A spike in COVID-19 infections in a single, high-security prison unit has halted an ongoing murder trial for at least two weeks, in which some court watchers believe it could portend a future. in which the trials begin and end abruptly because the accused, the lawyers or even the judges are exposed to the virus.
Lawyers were notified this week that a trial focused on a fatal shooting in December 2016 in San José will be on hold until at least July 20, after four inmates in Module 5B of the Santa Clara County Main Jail. They tested positive for the coronavirus, which resulted in the entire wing being quarantined. At least one of the three remaining defendants in the shooting trial is in quarantine.
“These are incredibly challenging times for everyone, and everyone is doing their best to do this essential job that is a constitutional mandate,” said Sylvia Perez-MacDonald, director of the Office of the Independent Defense Attorney, whose attorneys represent the accused in trial. “They are trying to strike that good balance of how to maintain and preserve their health and limit the spread of this terrible virus while doing their job.”
The sheriff’s office confirmed the positive cases, and in a written statement said that one inmate was initially symptomatic, prompting evidence from the other four inmates in the unit. That test revealed that three of the remaining four inmates tested positive for COVID-19, and that one of them was symptomatic.
The agency declined to specify when the new infections were identified, but based on data from the Sheriff’s Office COVID-19 and the time of the trial suspension, the cases appear to have emerged on Tuesday or Wednesday, when a total of six new COVID- 19 cases were registered in county jails.
A police source confirmed that the two symptomatic inmates at 5B were transferred to the infirmary and that the other three inmates are being isolated in their module. Four of the unit’s inmates had been there for some time; the fifth had been transferred from Elmwood Men’s Prison.
After registering just a handful of inmate infections in the first two months of the Santa Clara County Place Refugee Orders, jail cases increased dramatically in the past month. County jails recorded 13 cases between the end of May and June 13; Since then, the overall count has doubled from 19 to 38. To date, nearly 2,000 county inmates have been tested for the virus.
As local courts across the state resume holding more hearings and trials after largely closing between March and May, officials should treat the COVID-19 cases and exposure in court as an eventuality, he said. Steven Clark, a criminal defense attorney and former county attorney.
“The lesson learned is that there must be a Plan B. There is no reason for the judicial system to be immune to an outbreak,” Clark said. “It is not about if, but when it happens. How does the court respond? What do we do on stage if the litigants (trial) or the judge get sick? How do you handle that intermediate stream?
This week’s delay in the murder trial was not the first time that COVID-19 interrupted a trial since court proceedings resumed in Santa Clara County in early June. The trial for former San Francisco 49ers star Dana Stubblefield, accused of raping a potential babysitter in 2015, was halted for a week after Judge Arthur Bocanegra was informed on June 23 that “one of the Parties in the courtroom have come into contact with an individual who tested positive for COVID-19, “according to court records.
For imprisoned defendants, the sheriff’s office says it has ordered 14-day quarantine periods for new inmates and generally tests them twice before they move into general population settings. But prisoners and their families have been tireless in drawing attention to what they describe as the extreme difficulties of adhering to physical distancing notices in a prison environment and obtaining adequate supplies of sanitation and hygiene.
In late May, a series of COVID-19 cases at the Elmwood Minimum Security Camp brought the entire unit, nearly 350 inmates, to be examined. And jail officials are in the midst of a legal fight with the county public defender’s office, which last month filed a habeas corpus motion alleging that the sheriff’s office has been violating the purpose of an emergency $ timeline. 0 by putting detainees in the prison admission process. when they are eligible to be released after their reservation.
For its part, the county Superior Court has instituted a series of measures in the courtroom based on the mandatory use of face masks and social distancing. This has come to include restructured courtrooms with liberal Plexiglas facilities, increased video conferencing capacity, and widely spaced seating. The volume of potential jurors called to court at any given time has also been reduced.
But if last week’s coronavirus-fueled court disruptions are an indication, Clark says the public and the court system must prepare for many, well, trials and mistakes.
“This is what is happening in society in general. The rules continue to change, the health directives continue to change and the court will have to change with them, “he said. “It will never be as usual until there is a coronavirus.” It does not mean that we cannot have an effective and fair system, but it will be a different system and we will have to make the most of it. ”