NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – The first jury trials in the state since the pandemic hit got underway. However, some attorneys are concerned that new COVID-safe procedures will prevent their clients from getting a fair trial. Chief Public Defender Bennet Baur said he is concerned that the first cases are going to have a lot of problems. He said the justice system in New Mexico may quite literally proceed by “trial and error.”
“We are good enough in the state of New Mexico that we will get this right,” Baur said. “In the meantime, those charged with crimes cannot be penalized for this pandemic.”
Otero County District Court live-streamed its first jury trial during the pandemic Monday. Everyone there has to wear masks now, so both attorneys wanted to make sure jurors could still hear them clearly during their opening statements.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I’m going to make sure I try to project my voice to the corner of the courtroom,” the prosecutor said.
“If you can’t hear anything that I’m saying at some point, just kind of raise your hand and I’ll try to speak up,” the defense said.
Johnny Gutierrez is on trial for a drug trafficking case from 2016. As part of the new courtroom rules, a plexiglass barrier separates him and his attorney and they can pass notes to communicate with each other. However, his attorney, Roberta Yurcic, said that Gutierrez cannot read or write. She filed a motion for a mistrial raising that issue, along with others, like whether jurors can decide if a witness is credible when their face is covered with a mask.
She also argued over her client’s right to a public trial, saying a live stream link was not working during jury selection on Friday and claiming Gutierrez’s family was not allowed into the courtroom. Chief Judge Angie Schneider denied the motion, saying testimony did not show the family was turned away.
“I am acknowledging to everyone that it was not an ideal situation and… it wasn’t as we had planned it to go on Friday, but the courtroom was not closed,” Judge Schneider ruled.
She said that what happened Friday did not amount to a closed trial and that there were still ways to attend. Monday, Otero County District Court published the live stream link on its website for public access. The judge made it clear that all the COVID-safe changes to the courtroom comply with New Mexico Supreme Court orders.
In a statement about the new courtroom procedures, Chief Judge Schneider said, “Our courts care deeply about the health and well-being of every person who enters a courthouse. We have implemented safeguards and changed courtroom practices to provide protections against the spread of COVID-19. We are ready to welcome jurors back into our courthouses. The willingness of citizens to serve on jurors is critical for our American justice system to fairly and independently resolve legal disputes.”
The precautions include requiring masks, temperature checks, and the enforcement of physical distancing. The court also says jurors will get a “wellness kit” with hand sanitizer and a cloth mask.
Like Otero County did, each district has to get their public health plans approved before they can go ahead with jury trials. The Administrative Office of the Courts said Roosevelt County started jury selection today for a trial there, and magistrate courts in Silver City and Deming will start Thursday.