Attorneys gathered virtually in Santa Barbara County Superior Court on Wednesday to discuss jury selection for the man charged in the Han family triple-murder case.
Also covered in the hearing before Judge Brian Hill was how the capital murder trial of Pierre F. Haobsh would be conducted during the coronavirus pandemic.
Haobsh, 30, of Oceanside has been charged with three counts of first-degree murder and special allegations in the deaths of Dr. Weidong “Henry” Han, 57, founder of the Santa Barbara Herb Clinic; his wife, Huijie “Jennie” Yu, 29; and their 5-year-old daughter, Emily.
The victims’ bodies were found wrapped in plastic and bound with duct tape in the garage of their home near Goleta on March 23, 2016, after Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputies were dispatched on a check-the-welfare call.
According to the Coroner’s Office, autopsies determined all three died from gunshots to the head.
Haobsh pleaded not guilty to the charges and denied the allegations in 2017.
The Santa Barbara court now is gearing up to prepare for a large number of prospective jurors, and jury selection is expected to occur at another facility since courtrooms have limited capacity to ensure the appropriate social distancing standards implemented by public health officials.
Planning for the jury selection process amid the COVID-19 situation includes preparation of check-in procedures with documents, checks of temperatures, sanitization, face coverings, and other precautions designed to minimize the risk of transmitting COVID-19.
“My thought was we would end up doing the trial in one of our courtrooms, but the jury selection process would take place somewhere else,” Hill said.
Wearing glasses and orange-colored Santa Barbara County Jail clothing, Haobsh appeared via Zoom conferencing from a solo room at the Santa Barbara County Jail because of the coronavirus pandemic.
He wore a face mask for protection against COVID-19 and listened to the court proceeding by telephone.
The court plans to contact other courts in California and throughout the nation for information on varying protocols for a large jury pool amid the pandemic.
“We won’t reinvent the wheel, and try to deploy best practices for jury selection,” Hill said.
He has been consulting with Clarence Harlow, senior judicial services supervisor for the Santa Barbara County Superior Court, who was present at Wednesday’s proceeding.
Hill said that he would “assume we would do the trial in the courtroom, but even that is problematic” in the era of COVID-19.
Haobsh is being represented by Public Defender’s Office attorneys Christine Voss and Michael Hanley.
“We have to anticipate things will not be 2019 normal,” Voss said. “They will be 2021 normal, whatever that looks like.”
Planning also includes education on what the trial would look like, including the seating needed to meet at least six-feet of social distancing by participants and the latest procedures regarding ventilation in the courtroom.
Additionally, it includes consulting an epidemiologist to weigh in on best health practices to keep everyone inside the courtroom safe.
“This isn’t a coffee shop or a nail salon,” Voss said. “This is literally a matter of life or death, and we need to ensure that safely jurors are able to see all of the parties in an equal way, hear all of the parties in an equal way, and see the exhibits in an equal way.”
The county District Attorney’s Office decided to pursue the death penalty in the case, which is being prosecuted by Hilary Dozer and Benjamin Ladinig.
Haobsh had agreed that his trial for this case can occur through May 2021.
The last day for trial is June 10, Hill said.
Haobsh’s next court date is set for January in Department 2 of the Superior Court in Santa Barbara.
“We will all do some work on whether or not there are any cases that are going to be heard in early 2021 that are similar to this one,” Hill said.
Haobsh remained in custody Wednesday at the Santa Barbara County Jail, where he is being held without bail.