A superior court justice Thursday denied a Black defendant’s motion to appear in court for his murder trial without wearing a mask to avoid racial profiling by jurors. The ruling came more than a week before Maine is due to hold its first murder trial since the pandemic under a variety of restrictions meant to limit the spread of the virus in court.
Carine Reeves, 40, of New York City is charged with murder in the 2017 shooting death of New Gloucester woman Sally Shaw in Cherryfield. Superior Court Justice Harold Stewart denied Reeves’ request not to wear a mask during his trial, which is set to begin Sept. 21, the day after a hearing on the motion was held remotely.
Reeves’ attorney, Stephen Smith of Augusta, argued that his client should not be required to wear a mask because it is associated with the commission of crimes, especially when worn by a Black man.
During the Wednesday hearing, Assistant Attorney General Leane Zainea, who is prosecuting the trial, said Reeves’s trial would have to be postponed if he did not want to wear a mask in court.
“If the defendant does not want to wear a mask during the trial, that can be accommodated, but not at this time,” she said. “He would have to wait, and he would have to waive any challenge to the time constraints.”
Smith said that Reeves should not be asked to give up his right to a speedy trial due to his motion.
“We’re at a particular moment in this nation’s history when having a court force a Black man to wear a mask or to be judged by jurors wearing masks is, in our view, unconstitutional,” he said. “And to ask him to give up his speedy trial rights in order to get that is simply a false choice.”
In denying the motion, Stewart said that everyone in court — the judge, jurors, lawyers, defendant and witnesses — will be required to wear a mask, and that ensuring everyone’s safety during the pandemic is of the utmost importance. The Maine court system’s reopening plan mandates everyone entering a courthouse wear a face covering, and it provides for a number of physical distancing measures.
To address Reeves’ claim that he will be subject to racial profiling, Stewart said in his ruling that the jury selection process will weed out potential jurors who harbor racial biases.
“Everyone in the courtroom will know why Reeves is wearing a mask — to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the very same reason every juror is required to wear a mask,” he said. “In fact, in the court’s view there is greater risk of prejudice to Reeves if he was to not wear a mask.”
According to his motion, Stephen Smith argued that some coronavirus-related precautions proposed for Reeves’ trial violate the defendant’s rights to a fair and public trial and to confront witnesses.
His trial will be one of the first to be held in the state since the coronavirus forced court closures in March. It is set to begin with jury selection on Sept. 21 at the Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor.