District Court takes extra precautions ahead of first trial during pandemic

U.S. District Court (PNC News file photo)

The possibility of a trial being held during the COVID-19 pandemic has the District Court of Guam taking extra precautions to ensure the safety of all parties and the public but none of those measures matter if the Chief Judge can’t get any jurors to show up to court.

James Damaso’s case may be the first to go up for trial during the COVID pandemic, setting the way for the future of court hearings held during the crisis, but as the Chief Judge indicated, there are some hurdles that need to be overcome.

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First, is getting through the motion to suppress. The second hurdle is polling jurors to see if they will come into the courthouse during this time of crisis, and the third with patron limitations, jury selection will be a longer process, Chief Judge Frances Tydingco-Gatewood said.

Damaso is accused of conspiring to smuggle methamphetamine into the island through the Post office. His case is tentatively set for trial on June 17 and the court noted that pandemic measures could still be in effect.

But with Damaso’s right to a speedy trial asserted, a trial date had to be set in accordance with the Speedy Trial Act. Doing so, however, is taking a lot of coordination.

The Chief Judge explained during Damaso’s hearing yesterday that the court has been working diligently, putting together maps and charts on the logistics of in-court appearances, jury selection, and trial seating.

In fact, the federal court has already done the math and determined that they can safely allow 35 attendees at hearings in the Chief Judge’s courtroom, according to the 6-feet social distancing measures.

The discussion was prompted by the pending suppression hearing set for June 16th, with the federal government adamant that a former US Postal Inspector for Guam be flown into the island from Boston, Massachusetts to testify.

Under normal circumstances that would mean the witness arriving a few days before the hearing. But these are not normal circumstances and the 14-day mandatory quarantine must be taken into account as trial approaches.