Mario Angulo Jr.

Mario Angulo Jr.

GOSHEN — One of two Elkhart men charged with murdering a Columbia City woman last year wants to be released from jail and placed on home detention, claiming concerns about the spread of COVID-19.

Mario Angulo Jr., 19, made the request Thursday during a hearing in Elkhart County Circuit Court, citing situations where inmates have been granted emergency releases from jails in several states. He appeared via a new video conferencing system set up in the courtroom. The technology is among the recent measures taken to limit exposure to the new coronavirus at the courthouse in Goshen.

Angulo sat on a plastic chair and spoke into a camera and microphone hooked up to a monitor in a room at the jail. A 55-inch TV in the courtroom displayed an image of him and his audio. A camera mounted on top of the monitor pointed at Judge Michael Christofeno as he sat at the bench, while a nearby microphone picked up his voice and the voices of attorneys in the case. Corrections officers could be seen wearing facemasks.

Charges of murder, robbery and criminal confinement were filed against Angulo and co-defendant Donald Owen Jr. in December. They’re accused of torturing and killing Kimberly Dyer, 31, of Columbia City, and robbing Robert Porter, of Sturgis, Michigan, around Oct. 21 while holding the two in a house along Old Orchard Lane in Elkhart. Elkhart County Prosecutor Vicki Becker intends to seek a life in prison sentence if the two are convicted since Dyer was murdered apparently amid gang activity.

During the hearing, Christofeno appointed two psychiatrists to evaluate whether or not Angulo has an intellectual disability and is mentally competent to stand trial. Angulo’s attorney, Thomas Dixon, requested the assessments in a filing on March 4, court information shows.

Christofeno questioned whether the evaluations would be completed by May 4, Angulo’s scheduled trial date. He also pointed out local trials are suspended until May 11 under an Indiana Supreme Court emergency order that took effect last week in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to those situations, Christofeno called for rescheduling Angulo’s trial until Oct. 5.

Dixon, who appeared in court in person, was divided on the new date. On one hand, he said, he’s still reviewing evidence with a lot of work yet to do to prepare his case. On the other hand, he argued against postponing the trial until the fall.

“I think October is a long time to sit without trial,” Dixon said, seeking a date in the summer.

Christofeno noted the competency evaluations are the most immediate concern since the findings could affect the case’s progress.

“If Mr. Angulo is not competent to stand trial, we’re not going anywhere anyway,” Christofeno said.

Following that discussion, Dixon said he intends to file a request for Angulo to be released from jail while he awaits his trial out of concerns COVID-19 could spread among the inmate population and corrections staff. Dixon sought home detention for Angulo, saying his client has seen news reports about other facilities that have released inmates amid the outbreak.

Jails and prisons in states such as New York, Washington, California and Ohio, as well as in southern Indiana, have released certain inmates in order to reduce populations to stem the spread of COVID-19, reports show. The American Civil Liberties Union has been urging state and federal governments to release elderly and vulnerable inmates, according to a news release by the organization.

“He may be in one of the safest places in Elkhart County right now,” Christofeno told Dixon. “The sheriff has really locked the jail down.”

Sheriff Jeff Siegel closed the jail to the public last week. Attorneys, bondsmen and criminal justice professionals can be allowed in if they clear medical screens, according to the March 17 announcement.

Angulo spoke up during the hearing, saying he’s heard the jail’s medical unit has been closed off to serve as a quarantine zone, and that he’s afraid there are a number of people who’ve potentially been infected but they aren’t being tested to confirm that.

“There’s a lot of people in this jail concerned,” Angulo said.

Christofeno suggested that dropping the competency evaluation could speed the case’s progress.

“You talking to me right now sure doesn’t sound like you have any competency issues,” Christofento told Angulo. “You sound like you know what’s going on.”

Angulo and Owen remain jailed without bond in their murder cases since they were arrested in December. Owen’s attorneys sought a mental competency evaluation in February. One of the doctors appointed to that assessment filed a report with the court March 19, court information shows.

Owen’s trial date is scheduled to begin June 15.

A third man in the case, Matthew Murzynski, 24, Elkhart, is charged with helping confine Dyer and robbing Porter at the house where Dyer was killed. Murzynski remains jailed on a more than $5 million bond with a trial date still set for May 4.

The state Supreme Court began granting emergency orders to courts in counties statewide last week, allowing them to circumvent certain legal deadlines and take other measures under a state trial rule that addresses disaster situations.

The order for Elkhart County, citing health concerns about maintaining social distancing among potential jurors, includes a suspension of jury trials until May 11; postponements for hearings deemed non-essential in criminal, civil, divorce and juvenile cases; a call for relying more on video and phones for hearings when possible; and limitations on public attendance in courtroom galleries.

Christofeno, during Angulo’s hearing, speculated the emergency order could be extended. But a decision on that won’t be made until sometime in April. Because of that and the mental competency evaluations, he ordered Angulo’s trial moved to Oct. 5.

INITIAL HEARING

A few other hearings were held Thursday in Circuit Court via video conferencing.

Among them, Victor Courts III, 22, Elkhart, appeared for an initial hearing in a case charging him with a Level 3 felony count of armed robbery.

Courts is accused of working with another man, Jamal Barner, of Elkhart, to rob a Low Bob’s tobacco store along Johnson Street in Elkhart in May 2018.

A not-guilty plea was entered on Courts’ behalf, a public defender was appointed to the case and Courts’ request for a bond reduction was taken under consideration. Christofeno scheduled the trial to begin Oct. 5.

Courts was arrested Saturday on a warrant in the case, jail information shows.

Barner’s trial was postponed by his attorney’s request March 4. A hearing on how to proceed is set for April 23, according to court information.

VIDEO CONFERENCING

Don Pitzer, who serves as the deputy prosecuting attorney in Circuit Court, supported the new video conferencing system in the courtroom.

“I actually think it’s efficient and convenient,” he said. “I think it’s actually pretty nice.”

Speaking outside the courtroom, Pitzer listed benefits, such as enhanced safety, both from limiting the spread of COVID-19 and from packing inmates together in a room next to the courtroom. Corrections staff also don’t have to transport defendants from the jail to the courthouse.

He also thought the TV was big enough that defendants were easy to see on the screen from the prosecution’s table.

Pitzer said the video system could potentially be used more for hearings beyond the COVID situation.

Aimee Ambrose can be reached at aimee.ambrose@goshennews.com or 574-533-2151, ext. 240316. Follow her on Twitter at @aambrose_TGN.

Aimee Ambrose can be reached at aimee.ambrose@goshennews.com or 574-533-2151, ext. 240316. Follow her on Twitter at @aambrose_TGN.

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