Capital murder cases stack in Mobile as COVID-19 keeps trials on ice

Updated: Nov. 19, 2020 at 5:39 PM CST
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – Jury trials returned to Mobile County two months ago after a coronavirus-forced hiatus.

But not all trials. Capital murder trials remain on hold.

“We can make a plan to accommodate these types of cases,” Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich told FOX10 News, pointing to safety measures that have been put in place for non-capital cases.

Rich has 25 capital cases on her docket, including 11 for which prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. Among those cases are high-profile defendants, like Marco Perez, charged with murdering Mobile police officer Sean Tuder.

Mobile County Presiding Circuit Judge Michael Youngpeter said he hopes that by winter or spring, the courts can start trying capital cases in which prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty. But he has put off death penalty cases until fall 2021.

Those cases tend to be the longest and most complicated cases the courts handle, requiring a larger number of potential jurors to draw from.

“The primary problem is the jury pool from which you strike a capital case tends to be over 100 people, he said. “There’s nowhere in this courthouse we could place 100 people and socially distance them. There just is not a room. (It) does not exist.”

The courts in Mobile County started holding jury trials in non-capital cases in mid-September after a six-month coronavirus-forced shutdown. The court system is trying to keep COVID-19 at bay by reducing the number of trials at any one time, erecting plexiglass barriers and changing the dynamics inside the courtrooms.

Instead of sitting in the jury box, jurors spread out on benches normally reserved for spectators. People wanting to watch the proceedings now watch from TV monitors in the jury assembly room. And instead of meeting in that room, people called for jury duty now gather at the Mobile Civic Center, where they can spread out before getting sent down to Government Plaza for jury selection in individual cases.

Rich said she does not understand why those types of safeguards cannot be applied to capital cases. She said the rest of the community has learned to manage the COVID-19 risk.

“Have you been to Home Depot lately? Have you been to these places?” she said. “I mean, we have the same safety measures in place in this courthouse that we do anywhere else in the community. And so, the justice system should be a priority.”

Youngpeter agreed the system has worked well. He said he does not believe anyone who has tested positive for disease contracted it inside the courthouse. But the virus has impacted the courts, nonetheless, he said. Two judges currently are quarantining because staff members tested positive. And a few weeks ago, Youngpeter said, two circuit judges and a district judge tested positive.

All have recovered and are back at work, Youngpeter said.

In addition, Youngpeter said, judges have been forced to declare mistrials in two different trials after jurors tested positive midtrial.

The last thing court officials want is to have a positive COVID-19 case force a mistrial in a capital case have so much time and energy has been expended.

“The DA does not want that. The defense lawyers do not want that. Judges do not want that,” he said. “That’s really why we agreed to push those cases off until the fall of 2021.”

Delaying capital murder trials is not necessarily a bad thing for defendants. As an old joke goes, the prisons are filled with people whose lawyers announced, “Ready for trial.”

But defense lawyer Jason Darley, who represents three defendants with pending capital murder charges, noted that nearly all capital murder defendants are in prison without bail. That gives them an incentive to want to go to trail, he said.

“They’re in jail,” he said. “Some of these case are getting some age on them. And, you know, it’s time to try them.”

But Darley said he agrees with Youngpeter – and not just because of the logistical hurdles.

“As long has people’s faces are shielded when you’re asking questions about life-and-death matters, it’s going to be tough to do those kinds of cases, as well as get a jury pool that is comfortable enough to come back down into a setting like this,” he said.

Youngpeter said the Mobile County said defendants have begun agreeing to plea bargains since trials resumed, even though there are fewer cases on the trial calendar.

“We’re not that far behind. … I think if you look back at our stats, before COVID, not all eight judges were trying cases every week,” he said.