Three gang members scheduled to go on trial this month for killing a jail inmate had their trial pushed into next year due to coronavirus.
Yakima County Superior Court Judge Kevin Naught granted requests Wednesday from attorneys for Felipe Luis Jr., Deryk Alexander Donato and Julian Luis Gonzalez to postpone the trial amid concerns about picking an impartial jury during a pandemic.
“(The coronavirus pandemic) is also a distraction to the jurors,” said attorney Scott Bruns, who represents Donato. “Jurors will not give their full attention to the evidence but will be worried about getting infected from doing their civic duty.”
Luis, 21, Donato, 27, and Gonzalez, 22, are charged with aggravated first-degree murder in the Dec. 9, 2018, death of Jacob Ozuna, 36, in the Yakima County jail. All four are documented Norteño gang members, according to court documents, and were housed in a gang unit in the North Front Street jail.
Donato and Ozuna were cellmates, according to court records.
Prosecutors allege that Luis, Donato and Gonzalez brutally beat Ozuna, who was being held on suspicion of killing a fellow Norteño near Toppenish in May 2018. The three are accused of attacking Ozuna in the housing unit’s upper tier, dragging him down a flight of stairs before punching and kicking Ozuna in a 13-minute assault.
An autopsy said Ozuna died from the beating, which left him with bleeding in his brain, three broken ribs, kidney damage and other injuries, court records said.
The three were to have gone on trial this month, but Rick Smith, who represents, Luis, and Mickey Krom, who represents Gonzalez, asked for the trial to be delayed as coronavirus cases increased and Gov. Jay Inslee implemented restrictions on social gatherings.
Along with the risks of bringing prospective jurors together and keeping a jury panel in a courtroom throughout a trial, Smith and the other attorneys raised the question of whether the jury would truly represent a cross section of the community and give their clients an impartial trial at this time.
Yakima County has conducted three jury trials since jury trials resumed in October, Naught noted, and the court has implemented procedures to minimize infection risks, such as conducting jury selection at the Yakima Valley SunDome and having jurors sit at least 6 feet apart in courtrooms while wearing masks.
But Smith said the stakes were too high in this case to take a chance with a jury affected by coronavirus concerns. If convicted, the three would be sentenced to life without parole.
“Can this case wait until early spring? Sure,” Smith said. “My client is not objecting. The consequences are he could be in jail from the time he is 19 until the day of his death.”
Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Sam Chen objected, saying that a delay could lead to a backlog of cases, as he has pushed other trials into 2021 to accommodate this one.
“Eventually, that anthill is going to become too big,” Chen said. Plus, he would have to get 30 witnesses to rearrange their schedules to testify.
Naught agreed that an aggravated murder trial with gang connections is different from the other trials that have been conducted since the pandemic began. He said the concerns about getting a true cross section were legitimate, as some people could choose to use coronavirus to get out of being on the jury, either by saying they have it or are in a high-risk group.
He set a tentative trial date for April 5, and instructed the attorneys to come back on April 5 to finalize the schedule.
Naught also denied a request to keep jurors from hearing about the gang associations, noting that they shed more light on the crime than prejudice toward the defendants.