An Augusta lawyer claims that forcing him to wear a mask during his client’s upcoming jury trial because he has not been vaccinated for COVID-19 is the equivalent of making him wear “a scarlet letter” or “a dunce cap” in court.
Darrick X. Banda has asked the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to delay the start of the trial of his client, who is facing more than 20 counts of child sexual abuse charges, while it decides if Banda should be required to be the only person in the courtroom wearing a mask.
The Maine Attorney General’s office, which is prosecuting the case, opposes Banda’s motion. Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber argues that it should be dismissed because Banda has not shown that his client’s rights would be “irreparably lost” if an appeal is considered before a verdict and sentencing.
Maine’s high court rarely considers appeals in criminal or civil cases until after a final judgement is issued and it has been closed.
The judiciary’s current COVID-19 guidelines require people who have not been vaccinated to wear masks in Maine’s courthouses. Previously, anyone entering a courthouse had to wear a mask and answer questions about their exposure to the coronavirus, if they were experiencing symptoms, and have their temperatures taken. Court employees also were required to wear masks.
Banda, a Republican who unsuccessfully ran in 2012 for district attorney of Kennebec and Somerset counties, said Friday that he would not have had time before the trial began to get fully vaccinated. The new rules, which went into effect July 6, were issued on July 1.
Banda has submitted proof of a negative test for COVID-19 to Superior Court Justice William Stokes, who is to preside over the trial set for jury selection on Friday. The trial is scheduled to begin Monday at the Capital Judicial Center in Augusta.
Stokes has said that court rules currently don’t allow him to exempt Banda from the mask mandate, according to court documents provided by Banda.
Banda’s client, Jared Jandreau, 36, of China, is charged with 18 counts of sexual exploitation of a minor, five counts of unlawful sexual contact and one count of solicitation for gross sexual assault with a victim under 14, according to the Maine Attorney General’s office, which is prosecuting the case. The sexual abuse allegedly took place in August 2017 when the victim was 12, according to previously published reports.
Jandreau’s codefendant, Jessica Cox, 32, of Augusta was sentenced last month to 10 years in prison, with five of those years suspended, and six years of probation after pleading guilty to similar charges.
Banda is the third criminal defense lawyer to raise the issue of mandatory mask wearing before juries and at sentencings.
Augusta lawyer Stephen Smith last year raised the issue before the murder trial of Carine Reeves began. Smith claimed it was prejudicial to make his client, a Black man, wear a mask before an all-white jury. The trial judge disagreed and ordered everyone in the courtroom, including Reeves, to wear masks. An appeal on that issue is pending before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
Reeves, 41, of New York City, was sentenced earlier this year to 48 years in prison for the murder of Sally Shaw, 55, of New Gloucester, in July 2017 in Cherryfield.
In April, Maine’s high court upheld the constitutionality of the pandemic restrictions in courthouses around the state in an appeal from convicted killer Noah Gaston, 39, of Windham. Gaston’s attorneys argued that he was entitled to a new trial, in part because his family was not allowed to be in the same courtroom with him at his sentencing due to COVID-19 restrictions. Those rules included mandatory mask wearing, social distancing, entry screening questions about exposure to the coronavirus and restrictions on who may be in the courtroom and who may view proceedings remotely.
Gaston was sentenced to 40 years in prison for the murder of his wife Alicia Gaston, 34, on Jan. 14, 2016.