Duluth judge to decide if COVID-19 safety measures violated murder suspect’s trial rights

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DULUTH, Minn. — A judge has been asked to grant a new trial for a Duluth man convicted of murder in a courtroom that was closed to the public during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Christopher Floyd Boder, 35, is serving 25½ years in prison for his role in the September 2019 shooting death of Timothy Jon Nelson, 33, in West Duluth.

A Duluth jury in October 2020 found him guilty of aiding and abetting another defendant, James Michael Peterson, in a fatal confrontation that occurred after Nelson reportedly attempted to rob Boder.

The trial, among the first to proceed at the St. Louis County Courthouse after a pandemic shutdown, was held with strict safety protocols enacted under a 6th Judicial District plan.

To ensure adequate social distancing, court officials completely rearranged one of the building’s largest courtrooms. As attorneys and court staff were spread out, a public gallery that typically could accommodate several dozen spectators was repurposed as the jury’s seating area.

That meant family and friends of both Nelson and Boder, along with members of the press, were not allowed in the physical courtroom. Instead, they were forced to view the proceedings via a closed-circuit broadcast in another courtroom one floor below.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals in February 2022 backed the plan, noting Boder never objected and ruling that the procedures “were not broader than necessary to prevent the spread of the virus.”

However, another opinion from the Minnesota Supreme Court in July added a new wrinkle to Boder’s case, along with other trials held across the state under similar conditions.

In an appeal of a Scott County aggravated robbery case, the high court wrote that “the exclusion of the public from a courtroom during the COVID-19 pandemic was a closure implicating (the defendant’s) right to a public trial.” The justices sent that case back to the trial court, ordering the district judge to “make sufficient factual findings about the decision to close the courtroom.”

The Supreme Court then did the same in Boder’s appeal, directing 6th District Chief Judge Leslie Beiers to conduct “further proceedings consistent with the court’s opinion.”

Defense attorney Jeremy Downs said he believes his client is entitled to a new trial.

The First Amendment generally guarantees the public and press a constitutional right to access criminal trials. A closure is allowed, Downs noted, in only the rarest of circumstances and it must “be no broader than necessary.” Under U.S. Supreme Court precedent, a court “must consider reasonable alternatives to closing the proceeding, and it must make findings adequate to support the closure.”

Downs contended Beiers must grant a new trial because the judge erroneously believed that the pandemic restrictions did not amount to a trial closure and did not impact Boder’s rights.

Additionally, he argued the judge could have utilized a two-way Zoom connection to the public viewing room or considered holding the trial in a larger venue that could accommodate spectators.

“In the case at hand, failure to provide a two-way feed did seriously affect the fairness, integrity and public reputation of the judicial proceedings for Boder’s trial,” Downs said. “The theory of an open ‘two-way’ courtroom not only allows the public to witness a trial, which helps authenticate its equity and fairness, but it allows Boder to see that the public is watching, which protects the integrity of the proceedings in which he is being tried.”

St. Louis County prosecutor Nate Stumme asked the court to provide more information before making any ruling on the issue. He noted that neither the defense nor the prosecution played a role in formulating the trial plan and the parties “were not privy to any of the considerations that informed the court’s decision.”

“For example, the court may have considered the cost, availability, access to technology, court security issues, or the fact that defendant Boder made a speedy trial demand in March of 2020 when evaluating reasonable alternatives to its pandemic jury trial plan,” Stumme wrote. “The parties were not privy to the specifics of any of these considerations or how they might have affected the court’s final decision.”

Stumme noted that Boder never objected to the exclusion of the public from the courtroom — a key difference from the other case decided by the Supreme Court, as that defendant “received at least a partial explanation of the basis for the district court’s decision.”

The prosecutor asked Beiers to provide a factual record for her decision and then allow attorneys to submit further briefs on Boder’s request for a new trial.

The judge planned to hold a Zoom hearing on the issue Thursday, but an apparent miscommunication prevented Boder from connecting at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Rush City, where he is serving his sentence. Beiers rescheduled the hearing for Nov. 22.

Peterson’s trial wasn’t held until nearly two years after Boder’s, in September 2022. He was found guilty of the same charge and sentenced to nearly 29 years in prison. He has since filed an appeal, which has yet to be argued.

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