WINCHESTER — A hearing on scheduling homicide suspect Edward Nathaniel Bell Jr.’s trial in Winchester Circuit Court on Friday previewed what jury trials may look like during the coronavirus pandemic.
The defendant and witnesses will wear masks, and the media and public will have to watch in a separate courtroom, according to Judge Brian Madden. Instead of at the Joint Judicial Center at 5 N. Kent St., jury selection will be done at the former Winchester Star building across the street at 2 N. Kent St., to allow for social distancing. The building has been vacant since The Star relocated in 2019.
Jury trials were suspended statewide on June 29 due to the pandemic, although bench trials, in which cases are decided by judges, are continuing.
At least 53 circuit courts have had their plans to resume jury trials approved by the Virginia Supreme Court, according to Patricia G. Davis of the state Supreme Court’s Office of the Executive Secretary. However, circuit courts in Clarke and Frederick counties and in Winchester, which are part of the 26th Circuit, are not among them. Davis said in an email last week that she didn’t have a timeline for approval.
Bell, 23, is one of four people charged in the drug-related robbery and murder of Jerry Wayne Reid in Reid’s Smithfield Avenue home on Dec. 23, 2018. Bell, who is accused of shooting the 40-year-old Reid in the chest, is charged with first-degree murder.
Madden told Bell’s attorney, Louis Campola, that trials during the pandemic will be different but fair. “I don’t think anybody likes it, but it is the situation were are in today,” he said.
However, with the defendant and witnesses wearing masks, Campola questioned whether fairness was possible. “That will have a negative effect on the jury,” he said.
In a motion filed on Thursday, Campola wrote that the recent COVID-19 outbreak at the Northwestern Regional Adult Detention Center in Frederick County has made it impossible for him to visit Bell. He said there is also a higher probability of a mistrial due to jurors contracting the virus. “Defense cannot adequately prepare for a trial’s logistics without knowing beforehand the mandates that will be imposed,” Campola said.
Campola also noted that Black people have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Blacks are three times as likely as whites to become infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Because Bell is Black, a lack of Black people in the jury pool due to the virus could affect Bell’s Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury, which includes a fair representation of Black jurors. About 11% of Winchester’s 28,000 residents are Black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
To better prepare, Campola agreed to waive Bell’s right to a speedy trial. The eight-day trial, which had been scheduled to begin Feb. 1, was postponed to 9 a.m. on Oct. 4.