Natassja Lopez-Alvarado (left); Jose Cruz Colon (right) pictured in mugshots. (Western Tidewater Regional Jail)

A pair of married convicted drug dealers who said that jurors unvaccinated against COVID-19 were wrongly excluded from their trial have failed to convince an appeals court that their constitutional rights were violated.

Jose Cruz Colon, 42, and wife Nastassja Lopez-Alvarado, 31, were convicted in 2021 of drug trafficking and money laundering. According to the Justice Department, the couple, originally from Puerto Rico, imported cocaine into Virginia for distribution, then sent proceeds of their illegal sales back to Puerto Rico. They were also accused of selling heroin.

Before their trial — which coincided with the emergence of the Delta variant of COVID-19 — Cruz Colon and Lopez-Alvarado had objected to the decision of U.S. District Judge David J. Novak to automatically exclude from the jury pool any potential jurors who were not vaccinated against COVID-19. Novak, who didn’t require the defendants to get the COVID-19 vaccine due to their “sincerely held beliefs,” overruled the objection, and the trial went forward.

After they were convicted, the couple appealed, arguing that the trial court violated their Sixth Amendment right to a jury consisting of a fair cross-section of the community where they were charged.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court for the Fourth Circuit disagreed.

U.S. Circuit Judges G. Steven Agee, a George W. Bush appointee, and A. Marvin Quattlebaum, Jr. and Allison J. Rushing, both Trump appointees, found that while the constitution requires that a jury must represent a fair cross-section of the community, there is no constitutional requirement that the makeup of the jury must mirror the “shared attitudes” of that same community.

“The fair-cross-section requirement applies only where groups are excluded ‘for reasons completely unrelated to the ability of members of the group to serve as jurors in a particular case,”” Quattlebaum wrote for the panel. While jurors may not be excluded for immutable characteristics like race, gender, or ethnicity — which have been deemed as irrelevant to the ability to serve in a jury — the decision not to get a COVID-19 vaccine does have such an impact.

Novak, a Trump appointee, “felt that seating unvaccinated jurors in the midst of a global pandemic unnecessarily jeopardized the safety of the parties, the witnesses, the jurors and court personnel,” the ruling said, noting that “those safety reasons related to the potential jurors’ ability to serve in this particular case.”

Quattlebaum also noted that Novak struck potential jurors for other reasons unrelated to the pandemic.

The Fourth Circuit’s ruling stands in stark contrast to many conservative groups’ vocal opposition to COVID-19 vaccine mandates that have often tied vaccine status to religious freedom.

Law&Crime reached out to attorneys for the parties but did not receive a response to request for comment.

Read the Fourth Circuit’s ruling here.

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