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Magbanua defense team pushes to delay trial, citing rising COVID-19 cases

The hearing lasted just over an hour, with discussions on jury selection, discovery and...
The hearing lasted just over an hour, with discussions on jury selection, discovery and evidence procedures and deadlines, and the date of the trial.(WCTV)
Published: Aug. 25, 2021 at 6:52 PM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - Katherine Magbanua’s defense team raised COVID-19 concerns, asking to delay her trial in a Wednesday afternoon case management hearing.

The hearing lasted just over an hour, with discussions on jury selection, discovery and evidence procedures and deadlines, and the date of the trial.

Magbanua is one of three people accused in the July 2014 murder of FSU Law Professor Dan Markel. In 2019, her case had a hung jury and ended in a mistrial.

Magbanua’s defense attorneys, Christopher DeCoste and Tara Kawass, say current COVID-19 case numbers are concerning. Both are cancer survivors and immunocompromised.

During the hearing, they added that Magbanua had tested positive for COVID-19 ten days prior, but negative Wednesday morning.

They added that socially distancing from her during trial could unintentionally sway the jury.

DeCoste and Kawass said they want to try the case but emphasize they want to do it safely.

“I trust that this court, this judge, is going to evaluate all the factors and make the right decision. Of course, the concerns go beyond our medical conditions on the defense, it’s the people of Tallahassee and the state of Florida. But at what point are we the band on the Titanic going down and still playing?” DeCoste questioned.

The prosecution said they are ready to move forward, objecting to a further delay of the case.

“We would object to continuing the case. We’re ready for trial. We want to try it as soon as possible and would like it to be kept on the docket for October,” the prosecutor, Sarah Dugan, said.

DeCoste and Kawass also pointed out that Magbanua is not objecting to the continuance, despite having to wait while incarcerated.

The defense team also brought up concerns about masks in courtrooms.

DeCoste cited the old practice of putting a hood over a person being hanged, so that the spectators wouldn’t have to see facial expressions. He argued the jury could be more inclined to convict Magbanua primarily because they could not see the bottom half of her face under a mask.

The defense team also said they are concerned about the jury being able to see the faces of witnesses testifying. DeCoste compared the situation to poker players wearing sunglasses; he said during cross-examination, he needs to be able to read micro-expressions on a witness’s face.

Judge Robert Wheeler denied the verbal request to continue the trial to a later date in court on Wednesday, but he instructed the defense to file a written motion about their concerns.

The trial date is currently set for October 4.

The pre-trial hearing is scheduled for September 30, with a filing deadline of September 17.

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