Mark Matthews in a 2013 photo. (Photo courtesy of Mark Matthews family)

Mark Matthews in a 2013 photo. (Photo courtesy of Mark Matthews family)

Murder trial delayed; court suspends jury trials because of pandemic

A jury trial for the man accused in a 2013 murder has been delayed until at least early November.

A trial start date of Sept. 7 had been set for Lee John Henry, 59, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, all in-person criminal and civil jury trials have been suspended until Nov. 2.

Henry is accused of killing Mark Matthews, who at 61 years old was found dead on July 28, 2013 on the trail that connects to Poopdeck Street. Police found Matthews with his pockets turned out and a later autopsy determined that he died of blunt force trauma to the head.

The case went unsolved for three years until Homer police arrested Henry in 2016, and he was indicted on one count of first-degree murder, three counts of second-degree murder, one count of manslaughter and one count of first-degree murder. Since then, Henry has been at Wildwood Pretrial Facility awaiting resolution of the case.

Last Thursday, Alaska Chief Justice Joel Bolger issued a special order extending the suspension of in-person criminal and civil jury trials until Nov. 2.

“The order recognizes that holding in-person jury trials at the current time could be detrimental to the health and safety of Alaskans because of rising COVID-19 case counts and increasing community spread,” according to a press release. “The current circumstances of the pandemic make it challenging to have jurors and all necessary trial participants gather in indoor settings for in-person jury trials. … Alaskans must be safe when fulfilling their civic duty as jurors and participating in a trial.”

Henry had been scheduled for a jury trial in November 2019, but the trial was postponed until April 2020 because of a dispute over what DNA evidence could be used in the trial. Henry’s defense attorney, Joy Hobart, had sought to have a new analysis of a previous DNA test excluded, but Kenai Superior Court Judge Lance Joanis allowed the new analysis. However, to give the defense more time to prepare and have its own experts examine the analysis, Joanis delayed the trial until April. That’s the date that has now been suspended by the pandemic.

Matthews’ sister, Laurie, expressed frustration at the continual delays.

“I keep asking them why is my case pushed to the back?” she said in a July 27 interview right before the 7-year anniversary of her brother’s death. “… Before I die I would like to have some resolution and justice for Mark.”

A status hearing will be held on Wednesday, Aug. 19. Because of the pandemic, the Kenai Courthouse is closed to visitors and the hearing will be held telephonically.

According to the press release announcing jury trial suspensions, presiding judges can allow in-person jury trials in “exceptional circumstances.” Such trials would be held in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations and state and local health mandates. The chief justice also can allow jury trials as pilot projects to test health and safety procedures. The chief justice has allowed presumptive death trials to be held by videoconference. The latest order will be reviewed on Sept. 18.

Reach Michael Armstrong at marmstrong@homernews.com.

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