Yamhill County, OR – A prison inmate accused of beating a woman in the head with a sledgehammer was released from custody last week after his victim insisted on wearing a mask in court due to her concerns about the novel coronavirus.
“It’s the second time I’m going through this trial, and now you’re gonna tell me I have to expose my friends and my family and people that I care about and myself to this virus?” 41-year-old Heather Fawcett asked during an interview with The Oregonian.
Her alleged attacker, Pedro Sanchez, was convicted of second-degree assault in 2016 by a jury vote of 10-2, and was sentenced to nearly six years in prison.
But in April of 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the State of Oregon could no longer permit convictions in cases without unanimous verdicts, so Sanchez’s conviction was overturned, KGW reported.
His retrial was slated to begin on Jan. 25.
Fawcett, who takes care of her elderly parents, said she told Yamhill County Court officials during the months leading up to the retrial that she would not forgo wearing a mask in the courtroom, KGW reported.
“I told them four months ago I would not enter any courtroom without a mask on under any circumstances, no matter what happened,” she told the news outlet.
Sanchez ultimately filed a motion asking the court to make Fawcett attend the trial without a mask under his right to meet his accuser face-to-face, which Yamhill County Judge Jennifer Chapman granted, KGW reported.
“Mr. Sanchez has the right to confront his witnesses,” his attorney, Olcott Thompson, told The Oregonian. “Part of what the jury needs to see is the faces of the witnesses while they’re testifying.”
The judge ordered that any witnesses involved in the case needed to wear a clear face shield instead of a mask while they were testifying.
Fawcett said she spoke with the prosecutor’s office about the possibility of wearing a clear mask, but they told her it wouldn’t be available by the time the proceedings were slated to begin, KGW reported.
She ultimately decided to forgo attending the trial altogether, resulting in the prosecutor filing a motion to dismiss the case against Sanchez due to the lack of a witness.
Chapman granted the motion, and Sanchez was released from prison later that day.
“I don’t understand why I have to be put at risk and why I have to choose putting myself at risk in this way in order to get justice,” Fawcett told The Oregonian. “[And] choose being able to testify on my own behalf or letting him get off and have the charges dropped just because I want to wear a mask to protect myself.”
“I just don’t see how it ever should come down to a decision of whether I wanted to be safe from COVID or safe from the person who hit me with a sledgehammer,” she told KGW after the dismissal. “I just don’t think that that was fair.”
She said she is also concerned for her safety now that Sanchez has been allowed to walk free.
“Last thing he said to me was, ‘I’ll kill you and your dog someday,'” Fawcett told KGW. “I just have to be careful, be aware, carry mace and hope.”
The judge later said no one had told her about Fawcett’s safety concerns regarding being required to testify without a mask, and said she had no idea why the victim didn’t show up for the trial on Jan. 25, KGW reported.
Chapman said she does not know how the situation might have been handled had she been made aware of Fawcett’s concerns.
“I don’t know what I would have done because that was never brought to me,” Chapman said. “What specifically we could have done in this case I just don’t know.”