DIXON – Citing concerns from prospective jurors over serving during the coronavirus pandemic and new restrictions limiting the size of in-person gatherings, a circuit court judge Tuesday postponed the trial set to begin later this month in the case of the Dixon High School shooter.
In an emergency status hearing Tuesday morning, Ogle County Judge John C. Redington motioned to strike the Oct. 28 trial date in the case of 21-year-old Matthew A. Milby Jr., who investigators say walked into Dixon High School in 2018 with a rifle and opened fire near students and teachers.
Redington’s decision comes less than four weeks before Milby’s trial was set to begin, and four days into an at least 14-day period of enhanced mitigations aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus across Lee and eight other counties.
Redington referenced a guideline among the tighter restrictions, implemented Saturday, that prohibits gatherings of more than 25 people or that exceed 25% of a room’s capacity, during the 15-minute hearing Tuesday and a phone conference Monday with Lee County State’s Attorney Charles Boonstra and Milby’s attorney, Thomas Murray, of Dixon.
He also pointed to concerns communicated to his chambers after jury questionnaires — the first step in summoning and assembling a jury — had been mailed last month.
Some prospective jurors, according to Redington, were asking for dismissals and expressing their discomfort with reporting to and serving on the 14-member panel during the pandemic.
Those anxieties and the possibility of a juror transmitting the virus to the rest of the panel or not being able to report to court because they displayed symptoms of the virus also contributed to Redington’s decision to postpone the trial.
Murray had no objection to the court’s motion, saying he agreed it was the appropriate move amid the enhanced rules.
Boonstra, who objected to the court’s motion, said he respects the court’s reasoning, but that he wants to push forward with the trial.
“This is the closest we’ve gotten to trying this case in the two, two-and-a-half years since it started,” Boonstra said after the hearing. “It’s disappointing, but I understand where [Redington] is coming from.”
Tuesday’s decision was largely foreshadowed by Redington last month, when he confirmed during a status hearing that the questionnaires would be mailed.
“I’m almost tempted to say, ‘Let’s strike the trial,’ with everything that’s going on,” Redington had said then, when Lee County and the rest of Region 1 were still under normal Phase 4 reopening restrictions.
But since then, the region’s seven-day average positivity rate has surged and flat-lined above 8%, triggering the harsher clampdowns.
Redington’s hesitation last month was also tied to the unsettled status of Milby’s fitness to stand trial, which has been in limbo since August, when Milby refused to cooperate with the same forensic psychologist that had declared him fit in April.
The court has since appointed a new forensic psychologist, Naperville-based Steven Gaskell, and his fitness evaluation will be shared at an Oct. 16 hearing.
As of Tuesday, that hearing is still set to take place.
If Gaskell testifies that Milby is not fit to stand trial, then a new set of jurors will need to be selected and a new trial date will need to be set, Boonstra said.
But those moves are also dependent on the status of virus mitigations in the region, Boonstra said, explaining that conditions could get worse and restrictions could get tighter, further postponing the trial.
That dynamic has lingered in the Lee County Courthouse, which has yet to hold a criminal jury trial since they were first postponed in March, he added.
“Even if we have a defendant that is found fit,” Boonstra said. “We can’t try him if we can’t safely be in the courthouse, and we can’t try him if we don’t have a healthy jury.”
Source: The Daily Chronicle