The Missouri Supreme Court on Friday declined to pause a capital murder trial for a St. Louis man accused of killing his ex-girlfriend, her mom and his baby boy, despite two positive COVID-19 tests for potential jurors who had appeared in court.
The court's one-sentence ruling was issued two days after attorneys for Eric Lawson requested a two-week delay, citing concerns that coronavirus infections could spread to other potential jurors, trial staff and lawyers.
Jury selection began last week. Lawson is accused of fatally shooting 22-year-old Breiana Ray and 50-year-old Gwendolyn Ray before setting an apartment fire that killed his 10-month-old son, Aiden. Lawson, 32, has been in pretrial detention since his arrest nearly nine years ago. The case is being prosecuted by the Missouri Attorney General’s Office.
Attorneys for Lawson sought a continuance in January and again in March, citing concerns about COVID-19. Circuit Judge Michael Noble denied both requests.
Lawson’s attorneys asked Noble for a continuance a third time on Wednesday, this time citing the two positive cases among potential jurors. When Noble again refused to pause the case, defense attorneys asked the Missouri Supreme Court to intervene.
“Mr. Lawson and his attorneys have been exposed to COVID-19 in the past 10 days,” the court motion states. “So have the judge, the prosecutors, courthouse staff, and prospective jurors.”
St. Louis Circuit Court spokesman Thom Gross said a potential juror appeared in court on April 14. She tested positive for COVID-19 two days later and notified the jury supervisor on April 19, saying she didn't know when or where she was exposed.
Seven of the 39 prospective jurors from the April 14 session had originally been asked to return later, but Jury Supervisor Joanne Martin called each of them and told them they were dismissed, Gross said. Martin mailed letters to the others who attended that session to inform them of the positive test.
Gross said a second prospective juror told Martin on April 16 that they had just learned that a COVID-19 test taken earlier was positive. All 40 prospective jurors from that session were dismissed.
The court filing from Lawson’s lawyers said one of the lawyers, Julie Clark, is pregnant and thus considered vulnerable. An expert witness for the defense also “has several preexisting health conditions putting him at the greatest risk of contracting COVID,” the court filing said.
A response signed by Republican Attorney General Eric Schmitt and Assistant Attorney General Gregory Goodwin noted that attorneys on both sides and trial staff have been fully vaccinated for COVID-19, and that Lawson has received one Pfizer dose and is scheduled to get the second shot next week.
“This Court’s extraordinary intervention is not warranted because Petitioner Eric Lawson has understated the trial court’s protective measures, because none of Lawson’s rights are violated by Respondent’s procedures, and because this Court cannot practically delay an in-progress capital case for a ‘two-week continuance,’ the response read.
Elyse Max, executive director of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said that moving ahead with the trial is “blood-thirsty” and creates the risk of a “superspreader” event.
“They’re putting everyone at risk in order to move forward,” Max said. “It’s just concerning.”
Investigators say that after shooting the two women in Breiana Ray's apartment in May 2012, Lawson set two fires and locked the door as he exited, trapping his son and Breiana Ray’s 3-year-old daughter, who was critically injured.
This is the second time Lawson’s case has come to trial. In 2019, prosecutors and defense lawyers were unable to find enough jurors from a pool of hundreds. Some potential jurors cited scheduling conflicts, but others cited opposition to the death penalty.