The high-profile death penalty trial in the killing of an Adams County sheriff’s deputy will be postponed for at least two weeks because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, a judge ruled Monday.
The trial for Dreion Dearing, who is accused of killing Deputy Heath Gumm during a chase in 2018, will be on hold until at least April 6, Adams County District Court Judge Mark Warner ordered. Jury selection started earlier this month.
Warner listed several concerns surrounding COVID-19 that prompted the delay, including whether the court could select a jury that represents a fair cross section of society given the current restrictions on daily life. Older people may not be able to serve on a jury now because of the higher risk posed to them by the virus, while parents of young children might not be able to serve because they need to watch their children while schools are out, he said.
Warner also cited more general concerns for the health of court staff and those involved with the case, and he said that some prospective jurors had objected to reporting to the courthouse in light of the novel coronavirus.
“There is some population that is overwrought with fear and panic, and the only way to get them here would be to drag them,” Warner said.
Warner on Monday recognized Dearing’s right to a public trial, an issue that defense attorneys previously raised in court filings after most other hearings were canceled and the courthouse was closed to anyone without essential public safety business.
Joseph Archambault, chief trial deputy state public defender, said Monday he believed Dearing’s trial was the only capital case in the nation that was going forward during the pandemic.
Dave Young, 17th Judicial District Attorney, on Monday asked Warner to postpone the trial until May in order to better assess the rapidly changing pandemic.
“This is new ground,” he said, adding that the situation before the court could be radically different in May.
Archambault argued that the trial could go on now if the court allowed a doctor to assess the situation and suggest appropriate precautions against the virus, including testing potential jurors for the virus, something Warner previously declined to do. But Archambault also said he was concerned that people of a particular mindset or political view might be more likely to dismiss the virus concerns and therefore more likely to show up to court, and then more likely to be seated on the jury, creating a problem with fairness.
Warner, as he set the April date, said he was aiming for “middle ground.”
The decision comes as courts across the state grapple with the novel coronavirus pandemic and consider how to keep the justice system functional without jeopardizing public health.
On Monday, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser urged the courts in Colorado to postpone trials either by mutual agreement between the defense and prosecution or by judge’s order.
“I urge Colorado’s courts to recognize that, with the need to protect all trial participants from the deadly COVID-19 virus, trials should be rescheduled, and the speedy trial deadline should be recalculated,” he said, detailing the legal authority for such decisions.
Denver District Court closed Monday and Tuesday to allow for the Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse to be thoroughly cleaned after an attorney who visited several courtrooms there last week tested positive for the disease. Hearings for the remainder of the week are postponed as the court system attempts to set up virtual courtrooms.
On Thursday, the Colorado Supreme Court amended the state’s rules for criminal procedure to allow courts to require defendants to appear by phone for some proceedings and to allow defendants to appear by video in some cases if a public health crisis is ongoing.