Maine’s top court is for the first time considering the constitutionality of COVID-19 protocols in the state’s courtrooms.

Noah Gaston

Noah Gaston, 38, is serving 40 years in prison for murdering his wife in 2016. A jury convicted him in November 2019, and his sentencing was initially delayed by the onset of the pandemic the following spring. The hearing finally took place in June 2020. The court capped the number of people in the courtroom at 10, so others gave their statements on video or entered the courtroom only briefly to speak.

Gaston’s lawyers filed a motion to delay the sentencing until his supporters could be there in person, but the court denied it. That decision is one prong of his appeal to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. Gaston has also challenged several other factors, including the admission of statements he made to members of his church after the fatal shooting and a dispute over the jury instructions for murder. He has asked for a new trial or, if the court upholds his conviction, a new sentencing. The court heard oral arguments by remote conference in the case Wednesday.

Attorney Robert Andrews said the COVID-19 restrictions violated Gaston’s rights to a public trial, to confront witnesses and to have supporters present in the courtroom.

“The dynamics of the courtroom are important. … It’s very different to reach through the screen to generate the emotional impact that would otherwise occur in the courtroom,” he said.

Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber disagreed.

Alicia Gaston Press Herald file photo

“Here, we’re talking about the height of the COVID pandemic last summer,” Macomber said. “The court took reasonable measures to make sure everybody’s rights were addressed, not just Mr. Gaston’s rights, but the victims’ rights to a speedy resolution and the public’s right to attend.”

The court will consider at least one other appeal related to COVID-19 restrictions. Carine Reeves was sentenced to 48 years in prison after he was convicted at the first and only murder trial in Maine so far during the pandemic. His attorneys had objected before trial to the new protocols. In particular, they said, the masks required for everyone in the courtroom put their client, who is Black, at greater risk of racial profiling and also undermined his right to confront witnesses.

Gaston shot and killed his wife on the stairs of their Windham home on Jan. 14, 2016. He told police that he mistook 34-year-old Alicia Gaston for an intruder in the early morning darkness. Prosecutors said he either meant to kill her or shot knowing it was her on the steps. A jury deliberated for 12 hours over three days and ultimately found him guilty of murder.

The justices on Wednesday did not leave much time for attorney statements and instead jumped directly into their questions for the two lawyers. In addition to the pandemic restrictions, they spent several minutes asking each side about their arguments on religious privilege.

Before trial, Gaston tried to block the testimony of two men who knew the family from church and picked him up at the police station on the day of the shooting. His attorneys argued that his comments to them were protected by religious privilege because the men were leaders in their church group, while the state said the privilege shouldn’t extend to them. A judge ultimately found that Gaston waived his right to that privilege because he discussed that conversation with a third party in a later phone call.

Both men testified at trial. One said Gaston told them he shot his wife because he thought she was an intruder, then added that was the only story he could tell if he wanted to see his children again.

There is no timetable for the court’s decision.

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