Mistrial declared in Kent case after key witness was exposed to COVID-19
The trial is now scheduled for March 14-18, 2022
What was supposed to be a day filled with opening statements and arguments in the Kent trial was cut short: 5th Judicial District Judge Terry Ruckriegle declared a mistrial after the prosecution made a motion, and the defense agreed to it.
Shannon and Staci Kent were arrested in February after officers with the Silverthorne Police Department discovered a badly decaying body that had been left for several months in the Kents’ Silverthorne funeral home. The body was later identified by the Summit County Coroner’s Office as 42-year-old Victor Akubuo, who died in a car crash in Park County on July 30, 2020.
Shannon Kent was charged with felony counts of criminal attempt to commit tampering with a deceased human body, abuse of a corpse and violation of bail bond conditions. His wife, Staci Kent, was charged with felony counts of criminal attempt to commit tampering with a deceased human body and abuse of a corpse. The Kents pleaded not guilty to all charges in May.
Roughly 20 minutes before court proceedings were set to begin Tuesday, Dec. 14, Joseph Kirwan, 5th Judicial District assistant district attorney, said his team had received an email from T.J. Garcia, who said he’d been exposed to COVID-19 and was exhibiting symptoms.
Garcia took over management of the former Kent-Bailey Funeral Home in Silverthorne with his mother, Rose Abeyta, on Jan. 1 prior to the arrest of the Kents. The two run Colorado Funeral Homes, which has locations in Leadville and Denver. According to court documents, Garcia met with authorities in February to share details about Akubuo’s body, which had been left in the funeral home “for a substantial amount of time.” Garcia is considered a key witness in the case.
Garcia was set to take the witness stand Tuesday but was not in Summit County. Kirwan’s team instructed Garcia to get a rapid test and roughly an hour later, Garcia reported his test result had come back negative. Even still, both the defense and prosecution were concerned about the reliability of the test and the fact that Garcia was showing symptoms.
“Not being a doctor, anecdotally, people test negative, and then they later test positive,” Kirwan said. “I’m not sure whether the test is reliable. I’ve seen false positives, too. I’ve heard and seen that. I’m not sure whether that puts us clear to go or what. So we stand in the people’s motion (for a mistrial).”
John Scott, Shannon Kent’s attorney, and Thea Reiff, one of Staci Kent’s attorneys, both agreed with declaring a mistrial. Reiff said she believed a mistrial should be declared for the safety of the jurors and everyone involved in the case.
Before the decision was made, the court debated having Garcia give his testimony remotely, though Scott objected. He said the jurors should hear Garcia’s testimony in person because he is a material witness to the prosecution and defense. Plus, he said, Garcia would likely need to review various documents while on the stand. Scott said he couldn’t see the trial proceeding in Garcia’s absence.
Scott also pointed out that the court has a responsibility to tell jurors if there is the possibility of exposure to the virus, and people exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 are not permitted to enter the Summit County Justice Center. In addition, he said some jurors might not feel comfortable continuing to serve, and some might refuse their responsibilities if there is a risk of exposure.
Ruckriegle told potential jurors that the court’s decision might seem overly cautious but that it was the best move forward because the defense and prosecution were in agreement.
“We don’t believe it’s appropriate to even go forward and make you have to tell us whether you would be willing to continue to serve, even being exposed potentially from a distance,” Ruckriegle said to the potential jurors. “That may be what some people would call overreacting and may be what some people consider something that they appreciate in terms of taking their own individual and collective health into consideration.”
The mistrial comes on the second day of the trial after the first included discussion on whether certain evidence should be submitted. The majority of the first day was spent in private reviewing questionnaires from and questioning potential jurors.
The trial has been rescheduled to begin March 14 and run through March 18.
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