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Trial date set for Chinese UC Davis researcher despite courts’ actions to combat COVID

Tang Juan in a Chinese military uniform. (U.S. District Court/Released)

A federal judge in Sacramento has set a February trial date for a UC Davis Chinese researcher charged with lying to U.S. officials about her ties to China’s military and Communist Party, despite the fact that no one expects the trial to happen as scheduled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In a move highlighting the difficulty courts are facing as COVID-19 continues to ravage California and the nation, U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez set a Feb. 8 trial date for Dr. Juan Tang, but told her lawyers in a Tuesday Zoom hearing that “we’re not going to be open to the public by then.”

Tang’s lawyers, Malcolm Segal and Tom Johnson, have argued that even if their client went to trial and was found guilty of lying on her visa application to enter the country she likely would receive a six-month sentence.

She already has been in custody since her arrest in July, meaning that under the current charges she could end up looking at a sentence of time served by the time the case concludes.

Segal and Mendez pressed for a trial date as soon as possible to preserve her rights to a speedy trial, but Assistant U.S. Attorney Heiko Coppola made clear he would ask for a court order allowing a further delay, something Mendez indicated he likely would grant.

Part of the government’s desire to delay trial is the fact that prosecutors want to bring in a Chinese military expert based in Australia for any trial, and doing so during the height of the pandemic makes such a trip difficult.

Compounding the difficulty is a series of orders issued by Chief U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller that closed federal courthouses in Sacramento, Fresno, Redding, Bakersfield, Yosemite and Modesto to civil or criminal jury trials and provided for sentencing and other hearings to be held by video.

Courts have scrambled since March to deal with how to keep jurors and others safe during the pandemic.

Courts close again but cases go on

Sacramento Superior Court closed in mid-March, then reopened to trials in mid-June. But the court announced last week that it would not commence any new criminal jury trials through Christmas because of the expectation that Gov. Gavin Newsom may issue a new stay-at-home order for the region.

A few trials that already were in progress will continue, and no one has been allowed to enter the downtown courthouse without first having a temperature check and having to wear a face covering while inside.

Among those cases recently completed was the trial of NorCal Rapist Roy Waller, who was convicted in November in a weekslong trial during which masked jurors were spread throughout the courtroom to provide for physical distancing.

Waller’s Dec. 18 sentencing hearing is still scheduled to occur, with testimony from victims set for that day before he faces sentencing.

Tang’s case in federal court is unusual in that it has attracted worldwide attention as tensions between the U.S. government and China continue.

Tang is one of a number of Chinese researchers studying at elite American universities who have been arrested in a Justice Department effort aimed at ferreting out researchers working to take sensitive U.S. research back to China with them.

Her lawyers say she is well-known cancer researcher who is not a member of China’s military and that the case has been linked unfairly to other cases involving Chinese researchers.

Defendant hid in San Francisco consulate

The government says Tang initially fled into hiding in the Chinese consulate in San Francisco after being questioned by the FBI last summer, and that she avoided arrest until she emerged for a doctor’s visit.

Tang’s lawyers say she is a respected researcher with a young child back in China who wants to get her case concluded but has no desire to flee and become an international fugitive.

She was released from the Sacramento County Main Jail in September and allowed to live under house arrest in the Bay Area home of a lawyer who volunteered to put up $750,000 in home equity he would forfeit if she flees.

Tang has remained there despite her lawyer’s complaints that she and the lawyer have faced online threats and their unsuccessful bid to allow her to move to a nearby apartment while she awaits the outcome of her case.

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(c) 2020 The Sacramento Bee

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