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Is the 6th Amendment Violated by COVID-19 Mask Rules?

The Gist of this Article: Filing an appeal that rests on weak arguments is an exercise in futility, as the following summary of a recent Second Appellate District court ruling explains that after insisting upon jury trial during the COVID-19 pandemic with strict facial covering rules in place, one cannot then appeal on grounds that the facial covering violated the Sixth Amendment and a Romero motion based on a prior strike one-year old is meritless.        
Jonathan Maurice Edwards appealed his conviction from the Clara Shortridge Foltz downtown Los Angeles courthouse, wherein a jury found he committed the attempted murder of his cellmate Raul Sanchez Aguayo and that Aguayo suffered great bodily injury.  Edwards also appealed Judge Eleanor J. Hunter’s denial of his motion to strike his prior conviction for a strike conviction.

The first issue that the Second Appellate District Court addressed was Edwards’ claim that his Sixth Amendment right to confront and cross-examine a witness was violated by an order mandating that witnesses testify through a mask because the trial was held during the COVID-19 pandemic, during October 2021 to November 2021.

The Sixth Amendment states: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to be confronted with the witnesses against him . . .”  

The appellate court noted that Edwards demanded a speedy trial and that this was the first trial held in the courthouse in eight months due to the pandemic.

The Second District denied this ground for appeal, affirming Judge Hunter’s order that all jurors and witnesses wear masks during trial to reduce the inhalation of respiratory droplets generated when people cough, sneeze, talk and breathe, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Moreover, Edwards still enjoyed the constitutional right to confront the witnesses against him and the jurors saw and heard those answers.  The masks covered noses and mouths. 

Edwards cited to pre-pandemic cases about witnesses who tried to wear disguises while testifying and testifying behind a screen.  In response, the Second District stated that the court’s rules about using a mask was not intended to hide or obscure identities.

Edwards argued that the court could have ordered “clear masks” or use of “a face shield with a cloth drape across the bottom,” however, the court noted, Edwards offered no evidence that an objective authority appraised these alternatives to be effective in combatting the disease’s spread.

The Second District, in short, characterized Edwards’ Sixth Amendment argument as strained and weak.  It quoted the words of Thomas Jefferson in this regard: “A strict observance of the written law is doubtless one of the high duties of a good citizen, but it is not the highest.  The laws of necessity of self-preservation, of saving our county when in danger, are of higher obligation.  To lose our country by scrupulous adherence to the written law, would be to lose the law itself, with life, liberty, property and all those who are enjoying them with us; thus, absurdly sacrificing the ends to the means.” (quoted in Brest et al. Processes of Constitutional Decisionmaking: Cases and Materials (5th ed. 2006), p. 66).

Secondly, Edwards argued that the finding he inflicted great bodily injury on Aguayo lacked substantial evidence.  The Second Appellate District rejected this argument, as the evidence at trial was that he headbutted and punched Aguayo’s face many times.  A witness testified that Aguayo appeared to have a broken eye socket because his face was swelled up and closed his eyelid.  Moreover, Aguayo was left unconscious and his face was covered in blood.

Lastly, Edwards argued that the court abused its discretion in denying his Romero motion to strike his 2016 conviction for attempted robbery.  See People v. Romero (1996) 13 Cal. 4th 497. 

The Second District noted that a trial court’s refusal to strike a prior strike is an abuse of discretion only in limited circumstances.  Examples are when the trial court was unaware of the discretion to dismiss; when the court considered impermissible factors; or where the sentencing norms established by the Three Strikes Law produce an arbitrary or patently absurd result.  It is not enough to show reasonable people might disagree whether to strike a prior conviction.  There is no abuse of discretion unless the trial court’s decision is so irrational or arbitrary that no reasonable person could agree with it.  People v. Bergman (2021) 62 Cal. App. 4th 608, 637.

Here, Edwards had two prior misdemeanor convictions in 2013 for misdemeanor marijuana possession and trespassing.  The next conviction was 2016 for the attempted robbery.  Edwards then attacked Aguayo in 2017 and was convicted in 2020 of this.  During the pendency of the matter, prosecutors also charged Edwards with battery by gassing (Penal Code § 243.9(a)).
The Second Appellate District found no abuse of discretion in denying his Romero motion.

We present this summary because it lays out a strained appeal that did not seem to rest on solid facts in any way at all, but to remind the reader what the fundamental standards are that an appeal will face.

The citation for the Second Appellate District Court ruling discussed above is People v. Jonathan Maurice Edwards (2nd App. Dist., 2022) 76 Cal. App. 5th 523, 291 Cal. Rptr. 3d 600.

For more information about the Sixth Amendment Confrontation Right, please click on the following articles:
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