In State v. Bell, the WA Court of Appeals held that it does not violate a defendant’s constitutional rights for jurors to wear face masks at jury selection.
Mr. Bell was charged with first degree assault and drive-by shooting for an attack on his coworker. During jury selection, the court denied Bell’s request that jurors wear clear face shields rather than non-transparent face masks covering their noses and mouths. At trial, Mr. Bell was found guilty as charged. He appealed on arguments that the judge’s decision to deny his request for face shields violated his right to select an impartial jury.
COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS
The Court of Appeals reasoned that starting at the beginning of the COVID-19 Pandemic, Washington courts adopted a variety of strategies to ensure that trial could continue safely. The Washington State Supreme Court, in an order issued June 18, 2020, required courts to conduct all jury trial proceedings consistent with the most protective applicable public health guidance in their jurisdiction. It also ordered courts to inform jurors of steps the court would take to combat spread of the virus, including “face masking.”
“Washington was not alone in taking these steps to ensure the safety of jurors, court staff, counsel, parties, and the general public during a global health emergency. Many other jurisdictions did the same. Some of those jurisdictions have seen challenges to their pandemic-induced jury selection procedures similar to the one Bell brings. Courts have uniformly rejected these challenges.” ~WA Court of Appeals.
Ultimately, the Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it denied Bell’s motion. “It did not adopt procedures that no reasonable person could support,” it stated. “The trial court was responsive to Bell’s concerns throughout the selection process.” The Court of Appeals emphasized that Mr. Bell had the option to conduct voir dire online if he wished. This would have permitted access to the potential jurors’ faces, albeit at the cost of some of their body language. “He did not take advantage of this option, instead requesting that jurors wear face shields,” stated the Court of Appeals.
“Here, the trial court’s decision to require potential jurors to wear face masks may have deprived Bell of some portion of his ability to assess their demeanor. But jurors’ discomfort at being forcibly unmasked in a crowded room around a group of strangers in the midst of a pandemic may have also affected their demeanor and impeded accurate determination of their mood and credibility. And their tone of voice, body language, eyes, and other aspects of their demeanor remained as accessible as they normally would have been.” ~WA Court of Appeals.
With that, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when, during a pandemic, it required jurors to wear face masks during jury selection.
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