Judge Russell Canan told Albrecht Muth Thursday he would have to appear by video link at his trial by video link, even though the move would be “uncharted territory” for the court system.
The trial is slated to begin in just 10 days. Canan turned down a request by Assistant U.S. Attorney Glenn Kirschner to postpone the trial to provide more time to make arrangements to deal with Muth’s health issues.
Muth has maintained he is fasting for religious reasons, and his attorney, Dana Page, has said it isn’t too dangerous to bring Muth to court on a stretcher.
Asked if he understood the ruling, Muth refused to say. He acknowledged only, “I hear what you are saying.”
Muth has threatened, and undergone, hunger strikes repeatedly since his 2011 arrest on suspicion of killing his wife, Viola Drath. He appeared at Thursday’s trial readiness hearing by phone from United Medical Center.
While Muth’s current round of fasting has left him so weak that standing or sitting could put him at a “substantial risk” of death, Muth’s physician, Dr. Russom Ghebrali, said it’s hard to take Muth’s words seriously.
Muth announced last week he would fast until April 4, but Ghebrali said when he returned from a trip Monday, he saw Muth eating a sandwich. He later learned Muth had eaten Friday, Saturday and Sunday as well, Ghebrali said, but intended to start fasting again.
Muth seems to be starving himself just enough to make prosecuting him highly difficult, Assistant U.S. Attorney Glenn Kirschner said.
“He has done this over and over and over again,” Kirschner said.
Canan said because higher courts have held that judges must meet significant burdens to revoke a defendant’s right to be present, he was reviewing case law extensively.
A 1993 Supreme Court case, Crosby v. United States, found that federal rule of criminal procedure requires a defendant to be present for a trial to proceed. But that case involved a suspect who fled and was convicted in his absence – not one, like Muth, who is in custody but cannot be brought to court without a serious health risk, Canan said.
Other cases have found that it’s permissible for a trial to continue if a defendant flees in the middle of it, Canan said.
Muth’s attorneys also argued, in a motion filed last week, that the growing publicity surrounding the case harmed Muth’s ability to get a fair trial. Local media outlets “continue to report on almost every status and other hearing in this case and most recently reported in great detail the allegations contained in the government’s… motion to admit evidence of other crimes, to which the defendant is not yet required to respond.”
In the past, the motion admits, the District’s unique political status has prevented transferring cases to other areas the way a state court system might. But the attorneys argued it will be “next to impossible” to find a D.C. resident who hasn’t been influenced by news reports.
Muth is scheduled to appear before Judge Canan Tuesday at 10 a.m.