The high-profile murder trial for Austin Stryker is also the first time a judge has had to dismiss jurors mid-trial for COVID-19 concerns since Hall and Dawson counties resumed trials, according to court officials.
Stryker is on trial, accused in the September 2019 killing of Dahlonega woman Hannah Bender, who was shot to death in a black pickup truck and then stabbed. Stryker has eight different charges pending including malice murder, felony murder and violations of Georgia’s Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act.
As the vehicle neared the Sweetwater Juno Road area of Dawson County, Bender was allegedly shot in the head without warning by Stryker, according to previous court testimony.
According to a statement from Court Administrator Jason Stephenson’s office, a juror notified the court Nov. 4 that they had tested positive for COVID.
Chief Superior Court Judge Kathlene Gosselin, who is presiding over the trial and has written the orders concerning courthouse operations amid COVID, dismissed the juror after consulting with the defense and prosecution. Gosselin’s orders concerning COVID gives the trial judge the authority on dismissing a juror.
“All jurors, court officials, attorneys and anyone who had close contact with the juror over the previous 48 hours were instructed to self-monitor for symptoms, immediately report any onset, and to quarantine in accordance with current (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines if unvaccinated,” according to the statement from Stephenson. “These instructions resulted in the dismissal of two additional jurors.”
If another juror were to be dismissed, Stephenson said it “very well could” lead to a mistrial.
“The judge at that point would have a discussion with both sides and make a determination about what the result would be,” Stephenson said. “And of course, both sides could make their own arguments for what they think in the case. It’s hard to see how a trial could proceed without 12 jurors.”
Northeastern Judicial Circuit District Attorney Lee Darragh did not return a call for comment Monday, Nov. 8.
Stephenson said there are no requirements or orders compelling jurors to release or make the court aware of their vaccination statuses.
Court officials said the courtrooms and deliberation rooms were cleaned and disinfected, and no one associated with the case has reported any symptoms.
This article was originally published by the Gainesville Times, a sister publication to Dawson County News.