A murder trial was put on hold after the defendant tested positive for COVID-19. The situation unfolded in a few hours on Dec. 21 during what was anticipated to be the last day of the trial.
DC Superior Court Judge Neal Kravitz announced that a Department of Corrections (DOC) officer went to speak to Tony McClam about possibly getting a haircut on the evening of Dec. 20. The defendant has been on trial for first-degree murder while armed in the shooting of 11-year-old Karon Brown since Dec. 6. He informed the officer that he was experiencing chills and was moved, awaiting a COVID test.
Parties learned about this issue just after 9:30 a.m. the next day, as they were preparing for the trial’s possible conclusion before the case was to be handed off to the jury. They discussed what their plans should be going forward as jurors waited in another room.
The court had been in discussions since Dec. 17 about the jury instructions that were to be issued after closing arguments. Jurors had not been in contact with McClam since Dec. 16 because of this, but everyone else including the defense counsel, prosecution, deputy marshals and court personnel had.
Judge Kravitz explained the situation and said McClam’s jail unit is already on COVID quarantine due to a positive test. An entire unit is put on quarantine if one person within it tests positive. As of Dec. 15, 92 pretrial detainees at the DOC were in quarantine, according to government data. Judge Kravitz told parties he had been in touch with multiple people outside of court in light of the situation, including Chief Judge Anita Josey-Herring, the Department of Corrections and the U.S. Marshals Service. He confirmed that he had been recently informed of a detainee who had tested positive that brought to the court from DC Jail as well. D.C. Witness does not know when the detainee tested positive.
DOC attorney advisor Michelle Wilson informed Judge Kravitz just after 11:00 a.m. that McClam had tested positive for COVID-19. Parties began to discuss what steps they should take going forward to continue the trial.
“These are big issues that can have wider impact on what we do in the courthouse,” Judge Kravitz said during the hearing.
Judge Kravitz and the parties wanted to begin closing arguments early January after the holidays but needed to discuss it with jurors because the trial was not expected to last past December. Defense attorney Jason Tulley said he did not want to resume the trial after the new year but understood the greater responsibility the court had due to being exposed to COVID.
“I wish I had been able to talk to him already,” Tulley said shortly before 11:30 a.m., explaining how he had not gotten in touch with McClam yet. The court had also been attempting to contact McClam since the issue first arose that morning.
Judge Kravitz said he received a text message from Wilson amid conversations.
“They moved him before he could get the call, calling new unit now,“ he read. Wilson was confirming she was attempting to get in contact with McClam. When the text was sent, Tulley had yet to speak with his client.
Judge Kravitz was hesitant to wait long to speak to the jurors since someone they were in contact with less than a week prior had tested positive for COVID. Just after noon, he said he felt he had to tell the jurors something even if Tullley was unable to speak to McClam.
Judge Kravitz returned from a call with the Chief Security Officer for the court just after 12:15 p.m. He was informed that the court has no ability to administer testing to staff or jurors. The officer did suggest that since the jurors were seated across the room from McClam, they wouldn’t be considered in “close contact” with him.
“The jail’s incompetence is torturing the jurors,” Tulley said.
“Our client is sick and they have not done the basics of putting him in touch with us,” he continued. At the time, the court was still attempting to speak to McClam.
Jurors were brought in at 12:45 p.m., where Judge Kravitz broke the news about McClam’s test.
“I just want to thank you for your cooperation and patience throughout the trial,” he told the jurors. Judge Kravitz explained how parties had worked on finalizing jury instructions the entire day before, so they had been unable to continue the trial.
“In light of what happened, we’re going to have to suspend the trial,” Judge Kravitz said.
He told the jurors he understands what it will feel like to go home for the holidays and not be able to tell their families about what they have been doing in jury duty the past few weeks. “Please feel free to blame it on the judge,” he said.
Jurors were brought in individually to tell the court if they have any scheduling conflicts in the first two weeks of January with the expectation that the trial would resume on Jan. 5.
“Unfortunately, this is completely out of everyone’s control and I know we are not the only ones dealing with unanticipated challenges like this,” he said. Judge Kravitz thanked the jurors for their time and dismissed them with the promise that they would hear from the court by the end of the day with further instructions.
Parties broke soon after the jury left but met again at 3:00 p.m. spoke for a short period of time after the jurors left before going to a break. The defense counsel said they had been finally able to speak with McClam and he waived his right to attend the hearing. After some conversation, parties agreed to notify the jurors of a possible Jan. 4 date to resume the trial. Two jurors had initial issues with this start date and will be emailed separately.
The defense counsel has decided to rest their case in this trial. They were initially supposed to present one more witness and more evidence, but have decided against it in light of McClam’s positive test.Follow this case