The 10-day jury trial of accused murderer Chad Cheever, scheduled to start June 1 at the Linn County Fair & Expo Center – not the Linn County Courthouse – has been postponed due to COVID-19 concerns and related issues, according to court paperwork.
The decision to continue the trial was made by Judge Thomas McHill on Thursday.
Court filings illustrate the unusual steps necessary for a criminal trial, as well as the risks of such a trial, during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The trial was set to occur at the fairgrounds because it would be impossible to maintain social distancing to prevent the spread of the illness and conduct a trial at the Linn County Courthouse, according to court paperwork.
Cheever, 46, is charged with murder and second-degree assault for a Sept. 20, 2018 incident that resulted in the death of his relative, Tangent-area farm mechanic Don Whisenhunt.
Cheever’s attorney, Donald Scales, argued in a motion filed on Thursday that Cheever could not receive a fair and impartial trial under the current circumstances. Prosecutors Alex Olenick and Julia Baker objected to the continuance, according to the filing.
“To my knowledge, there has only been one jury trial in the state of Oregon since the courts have restricted services because of the pandemic,” Scales wrote. “It is not mere coincidence that only one case has gone to jury trial during the pandemic; it is common sense.”
The use of masks and social distancing in the courtroom could raise questions about the fairness of the trial, Scales continued, and there was no way to eliminate all risks involved to jurors or even courtroom staff. “One infected juror could create a situation that would quickly cause a domino effect, leading to a mistrial and unnecessary illness or worse. The only way to prevent the spread is to stay home,” Scales wrote.
Scales also worried that the jury will rush to a verdict due to the pandemic. “The risk for both the defense and the prosecution is that the jury, impacted by health concerns, will rush to a judgment that is not well reasoned or has not considered all the evidence,” Scales wrote.
The filing also touched on other complications with a trial during the pandemic, including: the inability to read facial expressions when selecting jury members; the jury pool’s everyday responsibilities with childcare, work responsibilities and lost wages being amplified during the public health crisis; and the inability of a large section of potential jurors to serve as they are at-risk to COVID-19. Scales noted that he himself has a chronic health condition that makes him more vulnerable to the illness.
“It is a worthy goal to efficiently try cases and make sure that justice is done in a timely manner. I acknowledge the right of the victims to have timely justice. However, the right of the defendant to have a fair and impartial jury, one that will be able to focus on the evidence and not be preoccupied with the outside world, is the paramount concern in a criminal trial,” Scale wrote.
The trial at the fairgrounds would have been unusual, and not just because of the venue.
McHill had indicated the possibility of excluding spectators from the courtroom, though the public could watch a broadcast of the trial in a separate courtroom, according to a memo filed by the prosecution on Tuesday.
Another option was to have a limited number of spectators during the trial at the fairgrounds, the prosecution’s memo states.
Whisenhunt, 60, allegedly died because of massive injuries caused by a physical confrontation with Cheever the night of Sept. 20, 2018. Cheever allegedly left Whisenhunt outside overnight on Whisenhunt’s Tangent property, according to court paperwork.
Tami Jean Fulbright, Whisenhunt's daughter, has pleaded guilty to first-degree criminal mistreatment for her role in her father’s death. She withheld necessary and adequate medical treatment from him.
Fulbright was sentenced to 30 days in jail.
Kyle Odegard can be contacted at 541-812-6077 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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