January 23, 2021

Defense attorney upset that DA didn’t tell everyone in courtroom a prosecutor had tested positive for COVID-19


REDWOOD CITY —  A prosecutor in the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office contracted COVID-19 earlier this month and a defense attorney who was in court with her is miffed that he and others weren’t told about it until five days later.

District Attorney Stephen Wagstaffe has confirmed that the prosecutor contracted the disease and has been in quarantine since testing positive June 17.

He also said in an interview Monday that a courtroom clerk meanwhile has been asked to stay home after her husband began exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms over the weekend until they know more about their health.

Wagstaffe said he alerted about 30 people on his staff who may have come into contact with the prosecutor but didn’t tell the roughly 180 other employees in his office because “they may have had an interest but no concern.”

Asked why he didn’t tell anyone in the courthouse who may have cone into contact with the infected prosecutor other than his own staff, Wagstaffe said that was up to the county’s public health department.

But public health spokesman Preston Merchant said Monday he didn’t know whether the county had notified courthouse staff.

Wagstaffe said that after the prosecutor’s husband learned on June 16 he had tested positive, she quarantined herself later that day and found out the next day she too had contracted the disease. A subsequent test reaffirmed the positive results on June 19, and she alerted the District Attorney’s Office that day, Wagstaffe said.

Charles Smith, an attorney with the San Mateo County Public Defender Program, said in an interview Thursday he is now in isolation after being notified by the program on June 24 about the prosecutor’s test results.

Smith said anywhere from 15 to 20 people were in the courtroom with the prosecutor at a preliminary hearing June 16. The prosecutor then left the courtroom to appear at another hearing in the courthouse, which meant “a whole new judge, courtroom clerk, court reporter and bailiff” were exposed.

“It was the most people in and around that courthouse for about three months,” Smith said. “Any exhibits, she’d have to hand to the clerk to mark and then hand them to the person testifying. And everyone who was in the first courtroom would have probably gone back to other courtrooms to handle matters. And then we would’ve walked out past the hundreds of jurors who were congregated outside.”

He said it’s concerning that the DA’s office did not say anything and he and others didn’t learn about the second positive test until five days later.

“That’s an issue obviously, considering a lot of us are risking our health going into the courthouse,” Smith said. “I was in the courtroom with that DA on the 16th. I’m now in isolation. I have an eight-month-old and a wife who works at a hospital.”

Smith said there’s too much “secrecy” in the county, which he partly blamed on its desire to reopen for business amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite a recent spike in COVID-19 cases, San Mateo County has received the state’s approval to allow indoor dining, gyms, movie theaters and hair salons.

On June 16, county health officials issued a new stay-at-home order that allowed hotels, zoos, museums and casinos to resume operations as long as they meet safety requirements.


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Author: Aldo Toledo