CHRISTIANSBURG — The latest rescheduling of Kayla Nicole Thomas’ plea took place last week against an unsettling backdrop of new anti-viral measures adopted at the Montgomery County Courthouse.
As at other courthouses across Virginia, court functions in Montgomery County shifted abruptly after Monday’s declaration by the Virginia Supreme Court that the COVID-19 coronavirus posed a ”judicial emergency.” Courts immediately began taking steps to postpone as many proceedings as possible and to conduct other business via video-conferencing or other measures that did not involve face-to-face meetings.
Thomas, 26, of Christiansburg was on the Montgomery County Circuit Court docket Wednesday to make a plea to charges of child abuse, forcible sodomy, inanimate object sexual penetration, producing child pornography and reproducing child pornography, all connected to the abuse and death of her 2-year-old son Steven Dale Meek II. Her boyfriend, McKenzie Kyle Hellman, also 26, is charged with murdering the boy in January 2019, as well as with sexual abuse and child pornography offenses.
With Hellman’s case delayed throughout last year for evaluation of his mental capacity, Thomas’ plea hearing kept being pushed back. Hellman presently is slated for a two-day jury trial that is to start June 22.
Regardless of coronavirus, Thomas’ plea hearing was going to be pushed back again, defense attorney Andrew Harmon of Wytheville said before Wednesday’s hearing. Prosecution and defense quickly agreed to move it to Aug. 26.
The two-minute hearing in front of Judge Marc Long came after attorneys and court staff waited more than 45 minutes in a courthouse hallway — sitting one to a bench or standing widely separated as they chatted. On the doors of the small rooms where attorneys and clients sometimes talk before or after a case, signs reminded staff to spray everything down with Lysol after the rooms were used.
Most of Wednesday’s cases had already been rescheduled. But the docket moved slowly, with lawyers and others allowed into the courtroom only one case at a time.
At the security check near the courthouse doors, sheriff’s deputies scrubbed their hands with sanitizer and offered some to a visitor. The door to the circuit court clerk’s office was plastered with notices explaining that the office was closed for most public functions.
Inside Long’s courtroom, bailiffs wearing hospital-style gloves warned those in the spectator area to keep at least six feet apart.
At Thomas’ hearing, the only people near to one another were the defendant and the bailiffs who escorted her to and from the holding cell area — and Harmon, who leaned close to his client to confer before Thomas told the judge she was agreeing to move her case to the summer.