Concerns about an attorney’s possible exposure to COVID-19 spawned a mistrial Monday for a man who has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity in the 1988 rape and murder of a 24-year-old woman in Colorado Springs.
The ruling by 4th Judicial District Judge Robin Chittum came on the second day of jury selection in the case of James Edward Papol, who is charged with first-degree murder and other counts in the killing of Mary Lynn Vialpando.
The judge rescheduled Papol’s sanity trial for Dec. 4. If a jury concludes he was sane at the time of the crime, a new jury would be convened to determine if he committed the killing.
The mistrial is a fresh example of hurdles courts face amid the pandemic, and the second coronavirus scare in recent days in Chittum’s courtroom.
It came after Papol's attorney Julian Rosielle told the court that he has a family member with flulike symptoms who has been advised by a physician to get a coronavirus test. The test will be administered Tuesday, and results could take three to five days to be returned, Rosielle said. In granting the defense’s request for a mistrial, Chittum agreed that Papol can't get a fair trial because Rosielle must quarantine.
Chittum said in court that an El Paso County sheriff’s deputy who worked in her courtroom on Thursday, has since tested positive for COVID-19.
Although Papol’s trial wasn’t in session at the time, possible exposure led the judge to send her clerks home. Lawyers who normally work in Division 19 are likewise isolating at home, the judge said. One of the prosecutors in isolation previously contracted the coronavirus in mid-July, and has since recovered.
The sickened sheriff’s deputy also worked in Division 12 on Thursday, said 4th Judicial District Administrator Scott Sosebee, who said the courthouse followed its coronavirus protocols.
Both courtrooms were sanitized, and employees who had contact with the deputy were notified, along with “partner agencies” whose personnel could have been exposed, Sosebee said. The courthouse posted notice of the incident on its website.
Jacqueline Kirby, a spokeswoman for the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, said the deputy is among three sheriff’s deputies who have recently tested positive for coronavirus. One works in court and transport, one at the jail and one in patrol, she said. That brings to 14 the number of sheriff’s employees who have contracted coronavirus since the onset of the pandemic, Kirby said. Among them was Deputy Jeff Hopkins, who died in April of COVID-19 complications.
Three jail inmates have also tested positive, Kirby said. The newspaper is waiting on a follow-up question asking if those inmates are currently sick, or if the number includes inmates who have recovered.
The Sheriff’s Office confirmed its first known case of COVID-19 among inmates in late July.
Also on Thursday, a defendant who had a case in Division 5 notified their attorney of a recent positive coronavirus test.
Sosebee said that an El Paso County epidemiologist advised the court it could continue the day’s business because the person wore a mask and was physically present in court for 10 minutes or less. Sosebee said the court likely would have suspended its business if it emerged that the defendant had been less than 6 feet from other people for 15 minutes or longer.
“If it’s within six feet for more than 15 minutes, we’re shutting things down,” he said.