Trial by COVID: Pandemic forces courts to change for cases to reach trial
To the friends, family, and loved ones of Vietnam veteran Stan Norman, it seemed as though the two men accused in Norman’s 2018 slaying would finally appear before a jury on Feb. 18, 2020.
That was the day that Sean Bryant, 53, and Michael McCauley, 43, were set to stand trial on allegations that Bryant tortured and both men killed Norman about two years earlier.
But Bryant and McCauley didn’t stand trial on Feb. 18, 2020, as some complications that emerged with evidence held by prosecutors ended up postponing the proceeding. And because of the COVID-19 pandemic, four new trial dates between February 2020 and January 2021 were also vacated.
Most recently, Bryant and McCauley were supposed to have their day in court Sept. 7, but that date ended up being scrapped as well after McCauley’s defense attorney argued that rising coronavirus cases would make it unsafe to go ahead with the proceeding.
The trial is now set for March 22.
Norman’s friends and family have had it with the whole ordeal.
“It’s excruciating, it’s exhausting, and it’s disappointing,” said Kristen Condict Day — a close friend of the Norman family — of the repeated delays.
Day runs a Facebook page, titled “Justice for Stan Norman,” where she attempts to keep the public informed and up to date on the latest developments in the case, but she admits that as time goes on, it has become increasingly difficult to keep people engaged in the subject.
“My job has become just been to try and keep people aware of this case because it’s being forgotten…why isn’t this case getting the daylight that it needs?”
Day said that Norman’s supporters, including herself, have grown increasingly frustrated at the lack of resolution in the case, and she further expressed that the pandemic no longer seems like a valid reason to push the matter down the road.
“It doesn’t say much for the court that they haven’t figured this out … jury trials are happening in other counties, why can’t they do this?”
PANDEMIC CONTINUES TO DELAY CASE
While the trial was finally set to begin on Sept. 7, McCauley’s defense attorney Kelly Babineau filed briefs just days before the trial’s start date and delayed the proceeding, successfully arguing that the county’s eruption of COVID-19 cases through July and August rendered it unsafe for the matter to go forward.
Numerous other trials in Nevada County have been vacated or otherwise postponed in recent months, as the court continues to struggle to find a way to balance holding trials while protecting public safety in the process, said District Attorney Jesse Wilson, who is personally handling the prosecution of the Bryant/McCauley case.
“As far as trials…COVID-19 continues to be a logistical hurdle, and for good reason, as people’s health needs to take priority,” Wilson said.
The district attorney said that the level of in-person contact in close quarters required by the nature of a jury trial has created challenges for the court, especially in light of the Delta variant of the coronavirus, which health officials say is significantly more transmissible than the original strains of the illness.
The newest variant, Omicron, also likely spreads more easily than the original virus. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “expects that anyone with Omicron infection can spread the virus to others, even if they are vaccinated or don’t have symptoms.”
“The Delta variant really hasn’t helped things…COVID creates so many issues with putting people in close quarters, which is what’s necessary with jury trials,” Wilson said.
TRIALS CONTINUE IN OTHER COUNTIES
In nearby counties, including Sacramento and Placer, the courts have found innovative ways to continue to hold trials despite pandemic concerns, officials say.
In Sacramento County, trials have been taking place in recent months at a largely pre-pandemic pace, said Rod Noorgard, a Sacramento County deputy district attorney. Noorgard credits a range of safety precautions — ranging from spreading out potential jurors into different rooms during jury selection to a lottery system that limits the number of in-person attendees in a courtroom — to having given the Sacramento Court system the tools to balance public safety and justice.
“It’s been a very long process, a balancing effort coordinating the Public Defender’s Office, the District Attorney’s Office, and the court,” Noorgard said of Sacramento County’s success in continuing to hold in-person trials.
In addition to the successful collaboration between the different public agencies, Noorgard credited the county’s heavy reliance on remote technologies such as Zoom, which allow some aspects of the trial process to be done remotely, as key to continuing to hold trials.
“We realized early on that there was going to be no way to do this without using technology, and that really worked out in our favor,” the prosecutor said.
During jury selection — an in-person process that normally involves 60 prospective jurors being crowded into one room for the selection proceeding — the Sacramento court has the jurors spread out into three different rooms, with prospective jurors in two rooms watching the third room (where the selection process is underway) remotely via Zoom.
The court system also uses a lottery system to lower the number of in-person court attendees during a trial. Members of the public who want to observe in the courtroom must place their names into a lottery system when they arrive at court, a practice that significantly limits the number of people crowded into a courtroom and thus reduces the risk of exposure to the virus, Noorgard said.
In Placer County, a variety of innovative techniques have allowed the court to largely resume trials after the pandemic brought most cases to a halt in 2020.
With a courthouse much larger than that of Nevada County, the court has been able to use available empty courtrooms and spread out jurors during the selection process, according to Deputy District Attorney Lisa Botwinik. Botwinik said the court has been creative in finding ways to reduce coronavirus risks, pointing to one particular trial where the presiding judge allowed jury selection to take place in a large auditorium on Sierra College grounds.
“We’re lucky that we do have some empty courtrooms and some different ways of doing things…it’s about thinking creatively and outside the box, like how can we make this happen for our community,” Botwinik said.
However, both Noorgard and Botwinik acknowledged that it tends to be more difficult for smaller counties to implement similar practices, as not every court will have the space or flexibility to take such prevention steps in regards to the coronavirus.
“…This coordination, these kinds of efforts, it really may be harder for a smaller county to do this…” Noorgard said.
While most counties statewide had to bring trials to a halt in 2020 due to the onset of the pandemic, larger counties have generally fared much better in being able to continue holding trials in 2021, said Yuba County District Attorney Clint Curry.
Curry said courts such as in Sacramento and Placer have a decided advantage in being able to hold trials safely due to their generally more extensive resources, including more modern and spacious indoor facilities. Conversely, the district attorney noted that smaller counties, such as Yuba and Nevada, have repeatedly had to bring trials to an almost complete halt when COVID-19 cases have started to spike in those communities, not only in 2020 but at different points in 2021 when cases have risen drastically.
“Our court has had to bring trials to a complete halt since the Delta variant happened…there’s just limited options from our end — all it takes is an outbreak of COVID with court staff and it brings things to a complete halt here, while on the other hand you have courts in Sacramento and Sutter counties with larger more modern facilities, and they’ve really fared a lot better than us,” Curry said.
Like Curry, Wilson acknowledged that Nevada County’s comparatively limited courtroom space and resources has had an inhibiting affect on the court’s ability to be flexible in the same way as the larger neighboring counties.
“Certainly, when these counties have more resources to address these issues of concern, you’re able to do a lot more and innovate more than you can when you’re dealing with much more finite resources,” Wilson said.
STILL SEEKING JUSTICE
To Kristen Condict Day, as well as many of Norman’s friends and family, the pandemic is no longer a viable excuse for delaying a conclusion to the case. Day said county prosecutors need to prioritize the Bryant/McCauley case and push the matter to trial as soon as possible.
“I’ve had several conversations with prosecutors on this case, and they’ve assured me that we’re going to get justice…Jesse Wilson has said this case is going to be a priority for his office, and I’d like to see that actually be the case. If you say it’s a priority, let’s make it a priority,” Day said, emphasizing the lengthy process with the case has only added to the pain Norman’s loved ones have experienced with his loss.
“They’re still trying to mourn the loss of their father, their brother, their uncle, and now with this dragging out…they just really need this justice for him,” she said.
When asked for comment, Wilson again emphasized the importance that reaching a conclusion with the Bryant/McCauley case holds for him.
“The Bryant/McCauley case is a top priority in this office, given the severity of the charges and also given how long the case has been around…it’s a top priority to get closure in the case, especially for the sake of the friends and family of Stan Norman,” Wilson said.
Stephen Wyer is a staff writer with The Union, a sister publication of the Sierra Sun.
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