Wheels of justice slowed during pandemic
By Joyce McClure
It’s been nearly two years since the news of the murder of acting Attorney General Rachelle Bergeron on the remote island of Yap spread rapidly around the world.
Bergeron, 33, was gunned down in the evening of Oct. 14, while coming home from a run.
Bergeron was working on several cases at the time including family violence and human trafficking, her areas of expertise.
The defendants Frances Choay Buchun and Anthony Rutun Teteeth, have been confined to separate cells in the small, rickety jail in Colonia, the only town on the 38 1/2 square mile island.
The main charges of murder and associated acts – 19 counts in all – are with the Yap State Supreme Court, while the FSM Supreme Court is addressing two counts of weapons and ammunition possession. They pleaded not guilty during their arraignment.
But even in the best of times, the wheels of justice turn slowly in Yap, and the pandemic that closed the nation’s border in late March 2020 nearly ground them to a halt.
Status hearings have been held periodically over the ensuing months, but little to no progress has been achieved.
The FSM Supreme Court held its later hearings via Zoom when government offices were eventually supplied with large screens and internet connections, bringing together the defendants and their Yap-based legal counsels with their Pohnpei- and Chuuk-based defense attorneys, the prosecuting attorneys, the judge and witnesses.
But the internet connection is not always reliable and time was often wasted fiddling with the reception.
The Yap State Supreme Court has not installed Zoom in its courtroom since participants in those proceedings are normally on island.
The border is still not open and there is no indication when it will be, but the state court has scheduled their trials for Oct. 15 and 22.
If President David Panuelo extends the national Covid-19 emergency declaration when it expires at the end of September, the trial dates will most likely be postponed again.
The FSM Supreme Court has held several status hearings recently to discuss how best to proceed, but there has been no agreement between the lawyers on how to get everyone to Yap. The prosecuting attorneys, led by the FSM Office of the Attorney General, and the judge are required to be in Yap for the trials.
It is preferable for the witnesses to be present, too, but under the circumstances their attendance via Zoom may be approved.
Witnesses include Bergeron’s husband, Simon Hämmerling, who now lives in the U.S., FBI agents and national police, some of whom are based in Chuuk and Pohnpei.
Travel through Guam, the normal route taken by officials going between Yap and the other states, has only recently opened the door a crack for certain citizens stranded abroad during the pandemic.
“Essential workers” are included in that initiative, but they must all be quarantined in Yap for seven days upon arrival. It is not clear if the trial participants would be classified as “essential” or agreeable to being quarantined for a full week. Interstate travel is, however, open since the country remains free of Covid.
But some of the attorneys involved in the proceedings refuse to fly the nearly 1,400 miles on the small plane that serves the islands. They were offered transport on a national government boat that travels between the four states, but refused that mode of transportation, too.
The stalemate continues while the defendants spend their days and nights languishing in their cells while awaiting their fate.