He said he feared that jurors would rush to judgment against his client, accused of fatally shooting two people during an alleged botched robbery.
“We are all consumed with what is basically a worldwide shutdown, certainly a shutdown in this area,” Lawlor said.
That Lawlor was even standing in a courtroom was almost unheard of across Maryland this week. The entire court system is closed except for the most critical functions.
In three of the state’s largest jurisdictions — Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Prince George’s County — no criminal trials were taking place, according to prosecutors. At the statewide public defender’s office, top official Becky Feldman said they were down to one trial — a rape case in Anne Arundel County, which concluded Thursday with a split verdict.
“It’s obviously a difficult situation that all of us are in,” Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Harry Storm said in response to Lawlor’s argument.
Storm noted how much time everyone had invested in the trial: a day of jury selection, four days of witness testimony, several hours of closing arguments. He cited a big precaution that had been taken: allowing jurors to deliberate in a conference room — one twice the size of a typical jury deliberation room — on the other side of the courthouse to allow social distancing.
Then Storm denied Lawlor’s request. “Please know that I am very mindful of all the concerns,” the judge said.
His decision, as it turned out, seemed welcomed by the jurors. They ended up deliberating over three days, airing not one word of health worries.
“I know it’s been trying circumstances,” Storm told the panel, thanking them for their service.
Lawlor, too, was impressed by their sense of civic duty. “With everyone on edge, they not only showed up every day but did so without complaint,” he said.
Two jurors who spoke briefly afterward said they were relatively comfortable meeting together in the courthouse. As one said, the very nature of the case — two young men killed, another facing the prospect of life in prison — was so serious that it commanded their attention. “We wanted to keep trying,” she said.
When 380 prospective jurors were called to the courthouse on March 9, the coronavirus had not yet upended American life. Maryland’s schools, bars and restaurants were open. News of the state’s first cases of coronavirus was just three days old, and those three people were reportedly doing well.
About 85 of the prospective jurors were sent to a courtroom for the double-homicide trial. They sat inches from one another in chairs, waiting their turns to walk up to the judge’s bench to answer questions in a huddle with Lawlor and assistant state’s attorneys Jessica Hall and Peter Larson. The prospective jurors’ concerns and comments seemed limited to typical trial stuff: possible connections to witnesses, personal beliefs they held. None shared worries about a virus spreading, attorneys would recall later.
That same Monday, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) was projecting calm. “All of our cases at this point are related to foreign travel,” Hogan said. “So far we have no cases of transmission here in the state of Maryland.”
The next day, the 12 jurors and two alternate jurors settled into their jury sections and the proceedings began. Storm’s courtroom, on the eighth floor, is roughly 40 feet wide and 80 feet long, with high ceilings. The jurors sat along two tiers, their heads about four feet from one another.
During the prosecution’s opening statement, they heard stunning allegations that would capture anyone’s attention. The man on trial, Andy Panton, 21, was allegedly part of a plan to lure a young man to a dark spot in the county’s White Oak area on the night of Jan. 28, 2019. Under the guise of paying the man $550 for marijuana, prosecutors said, Panton intended to rob him.
The target pulled up with a friend in the passenger seat, according to prosecutors. Panton and an alleged accomplice, Dontaye Hunt, got into the back seat. But things went terribly wrong. Panton ended up firing four shots, according to prosecutors, killing both men — Jordan Radway and Christian Roberts — in the front seat.
Lawlor told the jury to scrutinize the state’s key witnesses. “You’ll have only doubt about their credibility, and with that I’m going to ask you to find Mr. Panton not guilty of these offenses,” he said.
For several days, jurors heard from witnesses, family members of the victims, detectives and medical examiners.
The world outside was turning worse by the moment.
On Thursday, March 12, the fourth day of the trial, Hogan announced the state’s first case of community transmission. He banned gatherings of more than 250 people. He announced that schools would be closing. The court system weighed in as well, suspending all trials set to start the following Monday.
In court the next day, Lawlor made his move and requested a mistrial owing to virus angst weighing on jurors. He was denied.
Over the weekend, jurors faced unending, alarming developments involving the virus. But they showed up on time Monday, taking in closing arguments. Hall highlighted the testimony of Hunt, an alleged witness, and how the defendant’s DNA was found on the outside of the car where the shooting erupted. “Ladies and gentlemen, Andy Panton executed these two men in cold blood,” she said.
The jury went off to deliberate in their large conference room. But without a verdict, Storm let them leave for the day. All 12 filed out — none coughing, none looking sick, and none wearing masks.
The Montgomery County Circuit Courthouse is typically buzzing with activity: trials, plea hearings, weddings in the first-floor chapel. On a typical day, 1,500 to 2,000 members of the public arrive for various matters, according to Montgomery County Sheriff Darren M. Popkin.
This week, hallways, corridors, waiting areas and courtrooms stretched out in isolation.
By Tuesday morning, as Lawlor renewed his request for a mistrial, word of Montgomery’s lone trial had spread among lawyers in the state. Baltimore attorney Gary Proctor happened to be outside the courthouse, trying to file an emergency motion to have a client released from a work-release center owing to the man’s coronavirus concerns. He made his way to Storm’s courtroom, taking a seat about six feet from anyone else.
“I wanted to see it with my own eyes,” Proctor said.
Family members of the shooting victims, like most everyone else, have altered their lives. Wanda and Donald Roberts, the parents of Christian Roberts, placed a “COVID-19 Update” on the website of the foundation honoring their son, announcing that a planned “Sneaker Ball” fundraising gala would be postponed. They were at the courthouse sitting through the trial, and they didn’t want to have to go through the process again.
“As a parent you just want to have resolution,” said Wanda Roberts, sitting outside the courtroom. Next to her was her husband, other relatives and a container of bleach wipes.
On the other end of the eighth-floor lobby, news headlines — being pored over by one of the jurors waiting for deliberations to start — were terrifying. “Worse than a war,” announced a dispatch from Italy. “Theaters shut down,” read another.
By 9:40 a.m., he and his jury mates headed to deliberations. But by 4:30 p.m., no verdict. They returned Wednesday at 9 a.m., working until quitting for the most non-viral of reasons.
“We appear to have a hung jury,” the panel wrote in a note at 4:20 p.m. “And no further deliberations will change the decisions.”
Storm did not have to consider his options very long. It was clear the jurors were deadlocked. It was clear they had been committed to their task.
There had been a sole holdout for not guilty on felony murder, Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy would later say, adding that his office would retry the case.
In the courtroom, after Storm declared a mistrial, Lawlor took two steps toward the prosecution table, extending his right hand.
“You guys tried a really good case,” he said, shaking Larson’s hand.
“I can’t shake your hand during coronavirus time,” she said. “Sorry.”