In State v. Milko, the WA Court of Appeals held that a defendant has a right to have witnesses present in the courtroom. However, that right can be overcome. Here, the trial court lawfully allowed witnesses to testify by video when they had health related concerns about contracting COVID-19.
In 2018, Milko on five separate occasions contacted women who were paid escorts. He
arranged to meet them at houses in Puyallup that he did not live in or own. When each
woman arrived, Milko displayed a knife in an attempt to take their money or to rape them.
The State charged Milko with 12 felony offenses related to five incidents and five
victims. The charges included Burglary, Robbery and Sex Offenses.
Milko’s trial was set for July 2020. At the time, COVID-19 had been declared a global pandemic and a national emergency in the United States. In February 2020, Governor Jay Inslee had proclaimed a state of emergency in Washington. He issued a number of proclamations designed to help curb the spread of COVID-19. The Supreme Court ordered all courts to follow the most protective public health guidance applicable in their jurisdiction and to use remote proceedings for public health and safety whenever appropriate.
Also, the CDC and the Washington Department of Health recommended social distancing measures of at least six feet between people and encouraged vulnerable individuals to avoid public spaces. The CDC encouraged people to avoid traveling because travel increased a person’s chance of getting infected and spreading COVID-19. The CDC noted that older adults and people of any age with serious underlying medical conditions, such as diabetes and asthma, were at a higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19.
The trial court granted the State’s request to allow two State’s witnesses to testify remotely. One witness was SANE nurse Ms. Biddulph. The other witness was victim JA.
At trial, the five victims and several investigating officers testified in person about the
incidents giving rise to the charges. Biddulph testified by two-way video about examining BP and completing a rape kit for her. JA testified by two-way video about Milko contacting her for her paid escort services in Florida and raping her at knifepoint. The trial court instructed the jury that the State was offering JA’s testimony only to establish identity, a common scheme or plan, and/or modus operandi.
The jury found Milko guilty of all charges except for attempted first degree robbery. He appealed on arguments that the trial court violated the confrontation clause by allowing witnesses to testify by video because of COVID-19 concerns.
COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS
The WA Court of Appeals (COA) explained that the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that a person accused of a crime has the right “to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” Nevertheless, the COA quoted Maryland v. Craig, and other cases holding that video testimony does not violate the confrontation clause if it ensures the reliability of the evidence by subjecting it to rigorous adversarial testing and thereby preserves the essence of effective confrontation.
Here, the COA upheld the trial court’s findings that Biddulph’s traveling to Washington would place her and her children at risk of negative health consequences regarding COVID-19 were warranted. Biddulph in particular had health concerns about her one year-old daughter, who had compromised health. And the court made a finding that Biddulph’s health care provider “advised against travel in order to protect the health of Ms. Biddulph and her small child.” The court’s ultimate finding was that Biddulph could not travel to Washington to testify because travel will place her at a significantly higher risk of exposure to the virus.
“Accommodating Biddulph’s health concerns was more than a matter of convenience,” said the COA. In addition, it reasoned that concern for the health of a third person may be sufficient to support a finding of necessity. “This is especially true in a pandemic. Given the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, the risk to the health of Biddulph and her child if Biddulph was required to travel to Washington was significant and more than de minimis.”
The COA also found that the trial court found that JA’s health concerns due to her diabetes and asthma were warranted. These conditions would “place her at a higher risk of suffering severe health consequences if she were to contract COVID 19.” Further, the COA upheld the trial court’s findings that JA’s conditions “make it difficult, if not impossible, to wear a face mask for an extended period of time, including on a cross-country flight.” The court’s ultimate finding was that “J.A.’s health is currently compromised, and she is at a higher risk of serious medical complications should she contract COVID-19.”
“We conclude that these findings support the conclusion that video testimony was necessary to protect JA’s health. Accommodating JA’s health conditions was more than a matter of convenience. Given the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, the risk to JA’s health if she was required to travel to Washington was significant and more than de minimis.” ~WA Court of Appeals.
The COA concluded that the trial court did not err in allowing Biddulph and JA to testify remotely by video and their testimony did not violate Milko’s confrontation right. Consequently, the COA affirmed Milko’s convictions and sentence.
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