The Washington Post
Case is the ‘bookends’ of covid restrictions
Montgomery redo of last trial before shutdowns has first large jury since
This time, the jurors were spread out.
They also wore masks, sat next to bottles of hand sanitizer and listened to witnesses testifying from behind a plexiglass barrier.
And at 11:16 a.m. Thursday, inside a pandemic-proofed courtroom in Rockville, they announced their verdict: Andy Panton was guilty of two counts of felony murder, two counts of robbery and two counts of using a firearm during a crime of violence.
“On behalf of the entire Maryland judiciary,” Montgomery County Circuit Judge Harry Storm told the jurors, “thank you again for your service, particularly under the very challenging times under which we are work
Beyond the obvious importance of the case — Panton faces a possible lifetime in prison for murders that left two families devastated by grief — his lengthy prosecution played out as another example of the pandemic’s effect on everyday life.
In March 2020, as a new virus that people were still learning how to pronounce was spreading around the world, Panton went on trial for the first time.
Prosecutors accused him of being part of a botched robbery that led to the fatal shootings of Jordan Radway, 23, and Christian Roberts, 24, inside a Honda Accord on Jan. 28, 2019, in the White Oak area. The two had been lured there under the pretext of Radway selling about $550 worth of marijuana, according to trial testimony.
Jurors in that first trial seemed not overly concerned about the coronavirus. It was still early in the pandemic, when many people weren’t wearing masks yet and, if they’d been sent home from their offices, believed they’d soon be going back.
Even after the trial ended and jurors went into their deliberations, which they diligently did so for two days as courthouse operations and trials across the country ground to a halt. The panel stopped only for the most non-viral of reasons: They couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict. Storm had to declare a mistrial.
The proceedings that concluded Thursday were a redo. Panton’s trial in 2020 was the last jury trial of any kind in Montgomery County before the shutdowns; his retrial this month had the first large jury pool since the courthouse reopened.
“The Panton case is the bookends of how much the pandemic affected our ability to try major cases,” said Montgomery’s top prosecutor, John Mccarthy.
The 18 months in between have been excruciating for the families of the two victims.
“It’s like your life has been on pause,” said Donald Roberts, Christian’s father. “These were two great young men — loved and respected by their family and friends.”
Assistant State’s Attorney Teresa Casafranca in her closing argument to jurors Tuesday picked up on that theme.
“What’s a man’s life worth?” she began. “That’s the question, right? What’s a man’s life worth? If the last 18 months has taught us anything, it’s that a man’s life will not be measured by his earthly possessions but by his relationships.”
She reviewed how relatives testified to what good sons and brothers the two victims had been.
“Unfortunately,” Casafranca added, “no one will ever come in this courtroom and tell you about how they are good husbands, they are good neighbors, they are good fathers or they are good grandfathers.”
Jurors listened while socially distanced — taking up seats inside and outside the traditional jury box. They all wore masks — eight paper masks, three cloth masks and one N95-style mask.
When it came time to deliberate, court officials took them to an empty, unused courtroom where they could spread out rather than having to pack into a much smaller jury deliberation room.
They all kept their masks on, according to one juror who spoke after the verdict, and kept their focus on the evidence that they’d seen and heard. The juror, a structural engineer who lives in North Potomac, spoke on the condition of anonymity to maintain the privacy generally afforded to jurors in Maryland.
“I don’t think the pandemic really affected the proceedings,” he said.
Through witness testimony, DNA evidence and cellphone data, prosecutors showed that Panton took part in a plan to lure in Radway. Radway pulled up to a dark spot with Roberts in the passenger seat. Panton and an accomplice, Dontaye Hunt, got into the back seat, according to court testimony. But things went terribly wrong. Panton ended up firing four shots, according to prosecutors, killing both men in the front seats.
Hunt also was charged in the case, as was a third man, Noah Barnett, who allegedly helped set up the meeting. Both men await sentencing after pleading guilty to counts of armed robbery and accessory after a murder, according to court records.
The first trial ended in a hung jury because there had been a sole holdout for not guilty on the felony murder, according to McCarthy.
For this trial, though, prosecutors had two additional key pieces of evidence. The first was enhanced forensic testing that revealed that Panton’s DNA was found both on the outside of Radway’s car and on the inside — whereas in the first trial prosecutors had only the outside DNA. Second, prosecutors were able to present to jurors audio evidence of Panton speaking while aboard a bus, saying, “I got this.”
But prosecutors also had to overcome new statements from co-defendant Barnett, who was called to the stand by the defense.
“In your prior testimony, did you implicate Mr. Panton as being involved in the murders of Mr. Radway and Mr. Roberts?” attorney Mike Lawlor asked him. Barnett paused for 10 seconds. “Yeah, I did,” he said quietly. Barnett didn’t say much more but confirmed that he’d written a letter while in jail, one that Lawlor showed on a large monitor and read in court. Barnett wrote that he needed to clear Panton’s name.
He wrote that God had given him a second chance to make things right and that “it’s time for me to man up.”
But jurors also listened to a recording of Barnett’s testimony from the first trial. It was generally consistent with Hunt’s testimony and with physical evidence, according to the juror from North Potomac.
Starting in March 2020, as the pandemic raged and no vaccines were available, judges around the country knew they could not safely hold trials.
Courts couldn’t pack hundreds of jurors in rooms for the selection process, and once a jury was selected, its members couldn’t sit in tight spaces for a trial or to deliberate. Lawyers also didn’t like the idea of witnesses testifying with masks that blocked facial expressions needed to judge credibility.
Trials backed up in the system, defendants sat in jail, and prosecutors worried about their cases getting stale.
Maryland judges tried gradually to restart trials in October after extensive preparations but shut down again after community infection rates increased. Trials then started back up in April.
The second Panton trial was the first “large-strike” jury trial since the court reopening, said Vincent Weaver, Montgomery County’s jury commissioner. In those cases, because prosecutors get 10 strikes of potential jurors and defense attorneys get 20, a larger pool of prospects must appear.
Weaver said the Montgomery Circuit Court has conducted more than 75 jury trials since reopening. “Jurors seem to be cooperative,” he said. “We have had no issues.”
“It’s like your life has been on pause. These were two great young men — loved and respected by their family and friends.” Donald Roberts, father of victim Christian Roberts