Murder trial postponed after attorney expresses COVID-19 concerns
The trial of two men accused in the 2018 murder of Vietnam veteran Stan Norman has been rescheduled again, after the attorney for one of the defendant’s asked the court to delay the proceedings due to challenges created by the coronavirus pandemic.
Sean Bryant, 53, and Michael McCauley, 43, were both set to stand trial on Tuesday, Sept. 7, but at a Friday hearing in the case the proceeding was rescheduled to start Sept. 22, per a ruling on the matter by Nevada County Superior Court Judge Robert Tice-Raskin.
Bryant and McCauley have both pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder charges in the 2018 slaying of Norman, 70. Bryant also faces an additional felony charge of torture in the case.
Tice-Raskin agreed to postpone the trial after a motion submitted by McCauley’s defense attorney, Kelly Babineau, asked the court to continue the proceeding to a latter date due to Nevada County’s recent surge in COVID-19 cases.
In her brief on the matter filed Thursday, Babineau argued that the rapid surge in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations — which she argued has been driven by the onset of the highly contagious Delta variant and the county’s relatively low immunization rate — would render it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to give defendants a fair trial.
Over 50% of the Nevada County population had received the vaccine as of Thursday.
Additionally, she argued that the risks to the health of all parties involved, including attorneys, the jury, and any audience members in the courtroom, was too significant to ignore.
“Nevada County is currently at an all time high, reporting more infections now than at any other point during the pandemic…the ICU at the local hospital is at capacity,” Babineau’s motion states, citing previous The Union coverage to substantiate her claims.
In addition to threatening the health of those physically in the courtroom, the heightened risk posed by the coronavirus would invariably prevent both defense counsels from defending their clients as effectively as possible, the brief states.
Per current state guidelines concerning social distancing, the defendants would be required to sit 6 feet away from their attorneys during the trial, which would make it virtually impossible for her client to communicate with her in the courtroom, Babineau said. Additionally, she said that state guidelines requiring masks in the courtroom would both skew a jury’s perception of the defendants, as jurors would be unable to see their faces, and would also impair the jury’s ability to gauge a witnesses’ credibility during cross-examination, as a witness’ facial expressions can often provide the jury with non-verbal cues while they are testifying.
CHALLENGES OF COVID-19
Tice-Raskin said the case’s trial has already been delayed on four previous occasions. The judge also noted the significant interest all involved parties — including Bryant and McCauley, who have been in custody since 2018 — have in preventing further delays in the case. He also questioned whether further continuances of the trial would alleviate the challenges posed by COVID-19, adding that the pandemic will likely be an ongoing issue.
“It seems that we as the court will be managing the challenges caused by COVID issues for an indeterminate amount of time…if the counsel for the defense is not prepared to proceed effectively now, when will we be prepared?” the judge asked.
District Attorney Jesse Wilson expressed concerns similar to Babineau. While recognizing the need to reach a resolution in the case, Wilson said that he was concerned about the possibility that a COVID-19 outbreak affecting jurors, attorneys, or other individuals involved in the proceeding could further delay the trial, or force it to be vacated and restarted altogether. One person in the courtroom during the trial testing positive for the virus, Wilson said, could represent a potential threat to the entire proceeding.
Tice-Raskin decided to move the trial’s start date. The judge cited recent data that he said indicates that Nevada County’s surge of positive virus cases has reached its peak, meaning that a two-week delay in the trial’s start could considerably reduce the health risks to those in the courtroom.
Tice-Raskin also expressed a willingness to implement additional COVID-19 safety precautions during the trial to make all involved parties feel more comfortable. For example, the judge said that he would be willing to consider limiting or completely restricting the number of members of the public allowed in the courtroom during the trial.
Another hearing is set for Sept. 15 to reassess the matter and ensure that all involved feel comfortable moving ahead with the new trial date, Tice-Raskin added.
Stephen Wyer is a staff writer for The Union. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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