A five-week-long murder trial in Anchorage came to an abrupt stop Wednesday when the judge, in the middle of closing arguments, learned that a family member has tested positive for the new coronavirus.
Anchorage Superior Court Judge Herman Walker quickly left the courthouse to isolate himself and was replaced by another judge.
The announcement left jurors, lawyers and court staff facing worrying health questions about their own exposure, and the fate of the lengthy trial hanging in the balance just as the jury was supposed to begin deliberations.
Walker, a former private practice attorney who has been on the bench since 2015, had been presiding over the trial of Brian V. Clark, charged with murder in the 2015 beating death of Ella Olsen in Dillingham.
The trial started on Feb. 24 — only a month ago but before a global pandemic altered almost every aspect of life, including the court system.
The trial of Clark, 40, was one of only two to continue through the near-total court system shutdown of trials and hearings. The trial of Anthony Pisano, accused in a 2017 triple-murder, has also carried on.
On Wednesday morning, the prosecution was making closing arguments in Courtroom 404 of the Nesbett Courthouse when the judge granted a recess.
At the end of the break, around 10:20 a.m., Walker announced from the bench that a family member had tested positive for the coronavirus, according to an audio recording of the hearing.
Prosecutor Dan Shorey offered some words of support to Walker, telling him he hoped his family was OK.
But he wasted no time getting to his next point: Walker needed to leave the courtroom and self-isolate.
“We are asking you to leave right now,” Shorey told Walker, according to audio from the hearing.
Walker agreed that a new judge was needed.
“I don’t want to get anyone sick,” he said.
Minutes later, Walker was gone and Anchorage Superior Court Judge Josie Garton had taken over the trial.
Attorneys said they were concerned because they’d approached the bench to confer privately with Walker, coming in close contact with him regularly throughout the trial.
There had been some efforts to separate the room full of jurors, prosecution and defense attorneys, the defendant, and family members who showed up to watch each day.
Jurors had been sitting in an unorthodox arrangement to keep their distance.
Shorey asked for a timeline of contacts the judge had with the infected family member.
Both prosecutors working the trial are required by the Department of Law to go into a 14-day self-quarantine.
“We have to have those answers,” Shorey said.
Garton came back to tell the court what she’d learned: Walker’s relative had flown into Anchorage on Friday or Saturday morning. Walker had been staying at a separate residence to avoid being near the family member, who was already self-isolating because they had flown recently.
But Walker had been in contact with another family member who was staying under the same roof as the person who tested positive.
“So, for that reason, he has stepped off the bench,” she said.
Then the jury learned about Walker. Garton gave the jury a choice about whether they wanted to stop for a 14-day break, or continue.
The jury decided to continue hearing the closing arguments. They were expected to begin deliberating — 6 feet apart — late Wednesday or early Thursday.