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Murder trial delayed over COVID-19 concerns

Sheri Raphaelson, attorney for Mark Hice, was held in contempt Monday after revealing she had contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. She maintains she wore personal protective equipment during the encounter. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

TIERRA AMARILLA – Prosecutors in the 1st Judicial District Attorney’s Office had feared COVID-19 could derail the trial of Mark Hice, which was set to start Monday with the selection of the jury.

It took about seven hours for those fears to be realized.

Sheri Raphaelson, who is representing Hice as he stands trial in the 2018 death of 18-year-old Cameron Martinez, told Chief Deputy District Attorney Blake Nichols that she had recently been in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, after having been in the small District Courthouse in Tierra Amarilla for several hours.

Raphaelson said she had worked 11 days prior around COVID-positive patients quarantined at Buffalo Thunder Casino in Pojoaque and that she wore personal protective equipment the entire time.

“I was not exposed in the medical sense, in that my PPE was never breached,” Raphaelson told the Journal.

Monday’s jury selection was supposed to kickstart the 1st District’s return to jury trials amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Under procedures approved by the New Mexico Supreme Court, all those entering the courthouse are screened for COVID-19 symptoms and possible exposure to anyone with the disease.

Sheri Raphaelson, with her client Mark Hice during a hearing in Santa Fe September 6, 2019.

Raphaelson said she told Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s (RASO) deputies stationed at the courthouse about the exposure, but they proceeded to let her in the building. She also said she did not tell prosecutors and court officials about the exposure because she thought the deputy would inform the judge.

As a result, Judge Maria Sanchez-Gagne held Raphaelson in contempt of court, fined her $1,000 and issued a continuance for the trial, meaning the jury selection process will have to start again.

District Attorney Marco Serna had previously raised concerns about holding a jury trial in the small Tierra Amarilla courthouse, especially given the gravity of the case.

“Considering the amount of attention to this case from the community and from family members of the victim, no we do not believe this was the proper location for this trial,” Serna said before Raphaelson admitted to her exposure.

Prospective jurors had left the building by the time word of the exposure reached Sanchez-Gagne and it is unclear if they have been contacted by the court.

Serna, a member of the prosecution team against Hice, did not attend Monday’s hearing due to cold-like symptoms he was having, he said.

“I have been under the weather, and considering the COVID pandemic and the uptick, the decision was made not to go,” he said.

Serna said he had no plans to get tested for COVID-19, because his symptoms were “getting much better.”

Issues with having juries in the courtroom became clear even before Raphaelson revealed her possible exposure. The first few hours of the jury selection moved slowly after the start was delayed as courtroom officials had to rearrange prospective jurors to maintain social distancing.

At least five potential jurors voiced concerns about serving on a jury during a pandemic, including Claudia Page of La Madera, whose husband is at-risk for COVID-19.

“We’re just reinventing our world entirely,” Page said. “The whole idea of a jury trial sort of doesn’t make sense.”

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