Choose halts homicide trial after protection lawyer admits contact with folks with COVID-19 | Coronavirus

Judge halts murder trial after defense attorney admits contact with people with COVID-19 | Coronavirus

A murder trial for a man accused in the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Cameron Martinez ended this week before it even got underway in a remote courtroom in Rio Arriba County.

State District Judge Maria Sanchez-Gagne called a mistrial Monday after learning the attorney for defendant Mark Hice recently had contact with people who have tested positive for COVID-19. 

Hice, 24, of Ojo Caliente is charged with first-degree murder and 21 other counts tied to the October 2018 shooting that killed Martinez, a popular Española Valley High School graduate, and wounded three other young people.

Hice’s trial — set to be the first in the First Judicial District since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic — began Monday morning with jury selection. 

District Attorney Marco Serna said in an email that defense attorney Sheri Raphaelson later informed Deputy Chief District Attorney Blake Nichols she had been exposed to COVID-19 patients 11 days earlier “in her capacity as a midwife.”

Blake “immediately informed the court,” Serna said, and the judge called a mistrial. 

“Once again the victims and family of the victims have to wait for justice,” Serna said in the email. “My office has previously expressed our concern of trying cases during this pandemic.” 

Raphaelson confirmed late Monday that Sanchez-Gagne had found her in contempt of court and accused her of endangering jurors and other participants. 

But Raphaelson said she had disclosed her contact with patients, as a volunteer at a COVID-19 quarantine site, to a sheriff’s deputy who screened her at the courthouse entrance in the morning. The deputy allowed her to enter the building without remark, she said.

It wasn’t until she casually mentioned her volunteer work to the prosecutor later in the day that it became an issue, Raphaelson said.

The attorney said she had no intention of hiding her recent activities from the court, and she didn’t believe she was putting others at risk. She said had been wearing full personal protective gear during her work with patients. 

“Medically, this wouldn’t even be considered exposure,” Raphaelson said. “I was just trying to give complete answers.” 

She said the judge told her that as an officer of the court, she should have refused to enter the courthouse and informed the judge about her close contact with COVID-19 patients. 

Raphaelson said Monday the judge did not set a new date for Hice’s trial to begin but informed her the delay will be held against her client — meaning he won’t be able to argue it violates his right to a speedy trial.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys involved in the Hice case have filed motions raising concerns about whether the court was able to guarantee the safety of jurors and other participants in a small courtroom in Tierra Amarilla. Both also have decried the limited number of seats available to the public.

Raphaelson said she and prosecutors continued to raise concerns Monday, calling out violations of pandemic-related safety protocols approved by the state Supreme Court. She said that included the judge removing her own mask while speaking in court.

“Every protocol should be taken equally,” Raphaelson said.

“This just demonstrates the fact that it’s too soon to be having jury trials,” she added.

The U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico recently extended its postponement of jury trials through the end of July, citing ongoing safety risks.

State district courts, however, have begun holding jury trials. Still, it’s not clear whether a May 28 order from the state Supreme Court lifting a suspension on jury trials means courts can start holding them again or whether they must. 

The order says “civil and jury trials may recommence between June 15, 2020, and July 15, 2020.” 

Earlier this month, when asked if courts could choose to further delay jury trials, the First Judicial District’s Chief Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer said in an email: “No, the deadline to recommence jury trials is July 15, 2020.” 

Asked Friday to clarify whether the Supreme Court order directs district courts to begin trials or authorizes them to do so, Barry Massey, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of the Courts, responded in an email.

“The answer is provided by the Supreme Court’s letter to the District Court approving its plan for resuming jury trials,” he said, referring to the First Judicial District’s request to resume jury trials July 13.

Massey said the justices’ letter states, “We authorize the District to proceed with jury trials and in-person hearings beginning Monday, July 13, 2020, but no later than Wednesday, July 15, 2020.’ “