Face shields to be worn by witnesses at trial of former Abilene church leader accused of sex assault

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ABILENE, Texas (KTAB/KRBC) — A Taylor County judge has allayed fears that face masks will obscure the facial expressions of witnesses giving testimony in upcoming jury trials, which includes next week’s trial of a former Abilene church youth leader accused of sexually assaulting children in the 1990s.

In less than a week, former Abilene church youth leader Jeffery Forrest will be on trial after being accused of sexually assaulting children in the 1990s.

Last week, a father of one of the alleged victims said he’s refusing to testify over concerns COVID precautions would impact the outcome of the trial.

Judge Thomas Wheeler with the 350th District Court in Taylor County, who will be presiding over the case on April 12, says COVID-19 will cause the courtroom to be set up a little differently for a jury trial in 2021.

“In a typical jury trial, we either have six or 12 folks in a jury box and they’re sitting shoulder to shoulder,” said Wheeler. “Of course that’s not possible when this pandemic started and it is still not possible.”

Less than half of the jury will now sit in the jury box and the others will be in public seating.

In just a few days, Don Steele will have the opportunity to testify against Forrest, who allegedly molested Steele’s son in the ’90s.

Last week Steele said he would not take the stand, as he is unhappy with the use of face masks and concerned they will cover up facial expressions.

“The defendant has every right to a fair trial. Well, my son has the right to a fair trial,” said Steele.

Judge Wheeler says the 350th District Court is asking those who testify to wear a face shield so facial expressions can be visible.

“We understand the importance to the attorneys that are before us of being able to see somebody’s expression. Seeing what their eye roll is is not a problem, but their mouth and the lower part of their face is. Also, where they purse their lips, or whether they’re laughing, or whether they’re…all those things are important,” said Wheeler.

Each court can make its own decisions on the use of face masks or face shields, but in the 350th, each person will have the opportunity to wear a face shield.

The Forrest trial is scheduled to begin April 12.

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