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Double-murder trial in Omaha, federal jury trials delayed due to coronavirus

Double-murder trial in Omaha, federal jury trials delayed due to coronavirus

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Coronavirus can, at least temporarily, claim a few more victims: a double- murder trial in Omaha. And all federal jury trials and grand jury proceedings set for March at federal courthouses in Nebraska.

Chief U.S. District Judge John Gerard said Friday that the federal courts in Nebraska will cease trials in March and will leave it to judges and attorneys to decide when and whether pretrial hearings are conducted.

Also Friday, Douglas County District Judge Marlon Polk delayed the first- degree murder trial of Nyir Kuek, accused in a double slaying in Omaha’s Florence area.

The judge’s decision to delay came less than 24 hours after Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Heavican ordered that all state courts remain open and that the state justice system proceed, albeit with caution.

Judge Polk insisted his order is not in conflict with the chief justice’s edict. He said the courts, including his courtroom, will still be open.

But, Polk pointed out, Kuek still has more than three months left on his speedy-trial clock. And Polk said a month’s delay in the trial will give potential jurors time to get used to the new normal: a world faced with a pandemic, schools closing and events being canceled.

Polk had indicated to attorneys on Thursday that the trial would start Monday if Kuek wanted it to. Kuek wanted it to. But a few things changed overnight.

By Friday morning, several Omaha-area school districts had canceled classes next week. Polk worried about prospective jurors’ need to find child care for students no longer in school.

He also wanted to give the public “time to adjust” and prepare for jury duty. So he set Kuek’s trial for April 13 — still well within Kuek’s constitutional allotment for a speedy trial.

“Thirty days down the road, we don’t know what’s going to take place,” Polk said at a hearing Friday. “But at least the general public would have their process as far as how they’re dealing with school closures.”

Kuek’s attorney, Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley, had noted that officials predict the virus could be worse in a month or two. He had argued against a delay — pointing out that, just Thursday, Heavican ordered the courts to carry on with business.

In declaring the courts open, Heavican called on citizens and court officials to do their duty and promised that the Supreme Court “is carefully monitoring the evolving circumstances presented by the spread of the novel coronavirus.”

Heavican spelled out who should not come to court: anyone who has traveled abroad in the past 14 days; people asked to self-quarantine by public officials or health care providers; and people exhibiting symptoms of an infectious respiratory illness, such as fever, cough or shortness of breath.

Heavican has told attorneys and court officials to carefully screen litigants and witnesses to make sure that they don’t fit into any of the above categories.

“Basically, this (Heavican’s order) says the courts are open,” Riley said in pushing for the trial to start.

Riley’s motivation to have the trial start Monday was twofold: Kuek wants his day in court. And prosecutors have struggled with one or two witnesses in the case. One claims to have memory loss. The other reportedly has been defiant, and prosecutors have suggested someone tampered with him.

Kuek is accused of killing two men over a dispute about a text that was sent to Kuek’s mother.

According to the allegations laid out by an Omaha police detective at a previous hearing:

On June 18, Kuek confronted Michael Sykora about allegations that he insulted Kuek’s mother in a text message.

Two young men were in Sykora’s basement at 6908 Northridge Drive. Kuek arrived and told the young men that he was on a mission and that they were lucky because he wasn’t going to kill them.

Kuek showed them a gold Glock 9 mm pistol. Sykora had gone upstairs to retrieve his phone. When he returned, the detective alleged, Kuek fatally shot Sykora in the forehead.

The two young men heard gunshots and authorities later found Tracy Atkins, 50, in an upstairs bedroom dead with gunshot wounds to his shoulder and neck.

Kuek indicated the witnesses were spared because they were his “brothers,” meaning they also were black. Sykora and Atkins were white.

Prosecutor Amy Jacobsen said Friday that investigators need time to figure out whether one of the witnesses has been tampered with. But her primary reason for requesting a delay, she said, was so the public, including potential jurors, can come to grips with the virus.

“This is a pretty unprecedented thing,” Jacobsen said. “In a month or two … I would think the hysteria part of this would be settled down.”

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Reporter - Courts

Todd Cooper covers courts, lawyers, trials, legal issues, the justice system and government wrongdoing for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @CooperonCourts. Phone: 402-444-1275.

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