The trial of Radee Prince — the first major criminal jury trial Harford County has seen since courts closed for jury trials in March — was almost a non-starter as prosecutors and defense attorneys hashed out how to hold the trial and how jury selection would unfold at a Thursday hearing.
Jury selection is set to begin on Oct. 13 and last four days. Judge Yolanda Curtin said she hoped to have a jury of 12, along with six alternate jurors, by Friday of next week so the trial could begin the following week. If the court can find at least two alternates, she said the trial would push ahead.
Because of safety concerns related to COVID-19, administrative judge for the Harford County Circuit Court Angela Eaves said courts across the state will have to draw from a larger pool of prospective jurors as some defer their civic obligations for fear of their own safety during the pandemic. Though more will be called, judges will liberally excuse and reschedule those called for jury service upon request, Eaves said.
Also at issue during Thursday’s hearing was the allowance of a defense expert’s remote testimony, which prosecutors argued would prejudice their case, and defense contended was necessary for theirs. Despite no clear guidance from standing law or the Court of Appeals' administrative orders on remote testimony in criminal proceedings, Curtin ruled in favor of the defense, allowing the expert’s virtual testimony.
“Whatever prejudice that gives the state is not so substantial that it will require the court to deny the request of the defendant,” Curtin said in closing.
At Thursday’s hearing, attorney Mary Pizzo said that the defense would move for a postponement if its star witnesses, forensic psychiatrist David Williamson, was not allowed to offer remote testimony or could not be persuaded to come to court. Williamson’s testimony is necessary to make the defense’s case, but he is at higher-risk for a serious COVID-19 infection and has serious misgivings about flying from Texas to Maryland to testify in-person, possibly exposing himself to the virus.
“Mr. Prince wants to go forward,” Pizzo said in the mostly empty courtroom. “It is critical to the defense; we can not go forward without it.”
Curtinforesaw issues with the remote testimony. If technological issues cropped up during Williamson’s testimony, she saw potential grounds for a mistrial. That remains a concern, she said.
Pizzo said that technological advances in the court system — from projectors to PowerPoint presentations and mimeograph machines — have always had their glitches upon first adoption. She said the glitches would be manageable, if they occur, and the defense is prepared to work through them.
Assistant state’s attorney Timothy Doory argued that, per a letter sent to the circuit’s judges by the office of the public defender, in-person testimony was still preferred in most cases — even through the pandemic. He said the state opposed Williamson testifying remotely because his behavior would be different in the comfort of his home as opposed to under pressure on the witness stand.
“It is the position of the office of the public defender that … technology should not be used for contested hearings,” he said. “Exceptions to the requirement are very narrow.”
Doory objected further to the defense’s timing in bringing the issue before the court. He said Williamson’s reluctance to travel and appear in-person was known to attorneys in advance of the hearing but the concerns were just raised “on the eve of trial.”
“The mere threat of infection is insufficient to limit the defendant’s right to face-to-face testimony,” Doory said.
Pizzo said the letter from the public defender’s office was written to favor defendants and protect their safety. She contended that some circumstances warranted a departure from the guidelines.
“People are reluctant to come to court for a variety of reasons,” she said. “[Williamson] has been very protective of himself and his family during COVID.”
Jury selection will take place at the Havre de Grace Community Center, and the trial will be hosted in the circuit courthouse’s ceremonial courtroom. Curtin noted that benches around the courtroom had been marked for jurors and, at one point, in full judge regalia, she sat on one of the benches herself, instructing a sheriff’s deputy to sit in the witness stand.
Plexiglass barriers will also be placed around the witness stand and in between jurors, who are already spaced apart. Because of the space required for jurors to be socially distant, the proceeding may be fed to another courtroom via a closed-circuit video feed.