SALT LAKE CITY — A judge declined Thursday to release a 18-year-old man jailed on a charge of murder, rejecting his argument that authorities’ handling of the new coronavirus in the Salt Lake County Jail puts him at dire risk.
Attorneys for Koak Pal Biel said he has asthma and is African American, two traits known to raise his odds of serious illness or death if he contracts the virus. They argued the Salt Lake County Jail — which has reported 14 confirmed cases involving inmates so far and multiple staff members — is not taking the proper precautions to limit the spread of the COVID-19.
“In fact, this may be a life or death situation,” said Biel’s defense attorney Brady Smith, who unsuccessfully sought her client’s release to home confinement with an ankle monitor.
Smith said Biel’s current status behind bars amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and violates the Utah Constitution, which prohibits “unnecessary rigor” on those awaiting trial.
Third District Judge James Blanch disagreed. He said the conditions at the jail don’t appear to be so bad that they violate Biel’s constitutional rights. But Blanch also noted it’s not clear just how effective the jail’s efforts to quarantine and distance inmates from one another have been.
While Blanch and his colleagues have approved the mass release of several facing low-level charges on the condition they show up for summertime court dates, the judges also are evaluating requests for release from several awaiting trial for violent crimes.
Separately, civil rights groups have petitioned the Utah Supreme Court for the release of inmates at high risk of serious complications from the virus, plus others whose sentences will expire within six months. The state’s high court has not yet issued any ruling.
Biel is charged in the fatal drive-by shooting of 48-year-old Jawnie Wey, who was sitting on a couch in a Taylorsville home in July 2018.
Authorities say Biel, who was 16 at the time, sprayed the house with gunfire as 21-year-old Euziel De La Torre, who had a dispute with several living there, drove by. Both men have pleaded not guilty to charges including murder, a first-degree felony.
Biel has told his attorney that he now has a cellmate and has not been provided with hand sanitizer. Her client has also observed that guards are not wearing masks.
Moreover, the jail has continued to group 16 inmates together at a time and transferred Biel and a large group of others to a new section roughly two weeks ago, she said. Smith said the jail’s own reporting should be met with skepticism, in part because it’s not clear who there is being tested for the virus.
Prosecutor Morgan Vedejs offered a different view of the jail’s protocol, which she said has established measures to screen, isolate and treat men and women who show symptoms.
“They have taken all of the steps necessary to protect the inmates,” Vedejs said, adding that all but one inmate has recovered.
While the Salt Lake County Jail is Utah’s only jail to confirm positive cases among inmates, she said, the picture there is much different than the rapid spread of the virus in other corrections facilities like New York’s Rikers Island.
Vedejs noted the judge has previously found Biel is a flight risk and potential threat to the community if released. And while the coronavirus presents challenges never seen in the criminal justice system, simply qualifying as high risk should not be considered grounds for a person’s release, she added.
Thursday’s hearing, held by video as Biel watched from the Salt Lake County Jail, posed the question of whether anyone — even those charged with murder — can be held in the jail, the judge aid.
His answer was yes, given the current conditions at the jail. And while Biel may be at a higher risk of falling ill, he said, so are inmates who are older or have conditions like hypertension.
A trial has not yet been scheduled in his case as the Utah Supreme Court reviews Blanch’s decision to limit potential jurors from considering some evidence.