New York Defendant Unsuccessfully Argues that COVID-19 Face Masks Impeded His Right to Fair Trial

In a recent homicide case before a New York Court of Appeals, the defendant challenged his guilty convictions on the grounds that he was unable to fully observe potentially jury members during the jury selection portion of his trial. When the defendant’s case was before the lower court, COVID-19 was in full force, and the potential jurors were required to wear masks inside the courtroom. According to the defendant, the masks presented a problem with regards to his right to observe the individuals’ expressions and demeanors. Ultimately, on appeal, the court disagreed with the defendant and affirmed the guilty convictions.

Procedural Background

The defendant’s case revolved around a three-car collision in 2017, in which the defendant’s blood alcohol content was above the permissible limit. One of the other passengers ended up dying as a result of the crash, and the state charged the defendant with three counts of aggravated vehicular homicide and manslaughter in the second degree.

The defendant pled not guilty, and his trial began in April 2021. At that time, many COVID-19 protocols were still in place, including that potential jury members were told to wear face masks while in the courtroom. They were, however, allowed to remove the masks and put on a clear plastic face shield in its place when the judge or an attorney directly questioned them.

The Appeal

The jury ultimately found the defendant guilty as charged, and he appealed, citing case law that says a defendant should be able to fully observe the body language, demeanors, and facial expressions of potential jurors during criminal proceedings. According to the defendant, the face masks obstructed his view, and therefore he was unable to participate in jury selection fully and meaningfully.

The court did not agree that the face masks kept the defendant from fully participating in jury selection. There is more to a person’s body language, said the court, than the person’s nose and mouth – it would also be relevant to look at their posture, eyebrows and eyes, and lower body. Even if the defendant would have preferred to see the potential jurors’ full faces, there was no case law or statute indicating he had the absolute right that he claimed he did. Especially given the dangers of COVID-19, said the court, it was reasonable for the individuals in the courtroom to be taking safety protocols seriously.

Do You Need a New York Vehicular Crimes Attorney by Your Side?

At Tilem & Associates, we understand that the substance of a case is just as important as the procedural posture of the case, and we are experts in both. Our New York vehicular crimes attorneys leverage decades of experience to fight our clients’ charges and work tirelessly to get the charges dropped. If you want the best group of New York attorneys in your corner, call our office and figure out how to take the next step.
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