Oregon Assault Case Dismissed After Witness Refuses Court's Demand to Testify Without a Mask

Oregon Assault Case Dismissed After Witness Refuses Court's Demand to Testify Without a Mask
Photo:Loic VENANCE / AFP (Getty Images)

Heather Fawcett first accused Pedro Sanchez of attacking her with a hammer five years ago, and after Fawcett took the case to court, Sanchez was convicted of assault in the second degree by a jury. But after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Oregon’s nonunanimous jury verdicts, an appellate court overturned the initial conviction and granted Sanchez a retrial. This time around, Sanchez asserted his right to meet his accuser face-to-face and, with the support of the Judge, insisted that Fawcett testify without a mask—despite the trial occurring in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

The presiding Judge Jennifer Chapman ordered that instead, witnesses in the case must wear a clear face shield and no mask while testifying. When Fawcett asked if she would be permitted to wear a mask with a clear window over the mouth as an alternative to the face shield, she was told they wouldn’t arrive in time for the trial.

“I don’t understand why I have to be put at risk and why I have to choose putting myself at risk in this way in order to get justice,” she said between shaky breaths. “[And] choose being able to testify on my own behalf or letting him get off and have the charges dropped just because I want to wear a mask to protect myself.”

Although Fawcett considered taking the risk and appearing maskless in the courtroom for the retrial, she ultimately decided against it, not wanting to risk the health of her immunocompromised elderly parents.

“It’s the second time I’m going through this trial, and now you’re gonna tell me I have to expose my friends and my family and people that I care about and myself to this virus?”

But since both of the other witnesses to the assault (Fawcett’s boyfriend at the time and his brother) have died since the first trial, without Fawcett’s testimony, the case against Sanchez was dismissed entirely.

Executive director of the Oregon Crime Victims Law Center Rosemary Brewer says that courts need to protect victims’ constitutional right to be treated with dignity and safety—and that includes their health.

“I’m concerned that courts are not granting victims their rights with the same priority that they are for defendants due to COVID-19,” she said.

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