COLONIA, Yap— The state of Yap has asked the local court to delay until August 2021 the trials of the two suspects in the murder of Yap’s former acting attorney general, Rachelle Bergeron-Hammerling.
This comes soon after several prior hearing and trial dates in the case were rescheduled or cancelled. Legal proceedings have been slow due to the closing of the FSM’s border on Jan. 31, 2020, when the pandemic hit.
Bergeron-Hammerling, 33, an American citizen, was slain on Oct. 14, 2019, outside her house near Colonia, the island’s only town. The two suspects in the case are Anthony Tun and Francis Choay Buchun. The 19 charges against the two suspects include murder, manslaughter, and firearms possession. Both defendants have pleaded not guilty and will be tried separately in bench trials.
When Tun did not respond to the motion to postpone the trial, presiding Judge Jonathan M. Tun set the trial date for Aug. 6 at 1pm.
The other defendant, Buchun, is noted in the Order for Continuance issued by presiding Judge Cyprian J. Manmaw as not opposing the motion to postpone his trial until Aug. 13. However, the request was denied by the court, which stated, “The court needs to hold a hearing on when a trial date is appropriate because of the pandemic, defendant’s right to speedy trial and other issues on which the court needs to hear the parties. The court will set a date and time for the hearing.” That date has not been set yet.
Concurrently, the FSM Supreme Court has been proceeding slowly with its case against the two defendants for weapons and ammunition possession. Associate Justice Larry Wentworth also postponed those trials until July, tentatively, based on the opening of the nation’s borders at some yet-to-be-announced time in the future.
Wentworth has used Zoom in the courtroom to conference in all of the participants during hearings, but the connection is not reliable or optimal.
Legal counsels for both the prosecution and defense, and witnesses from the FSM National Police and Yap State Police who participated in the investigation, arrests and interrogations, are based in Chuuk, Pohnpei, and Yap. Other potential witnesses include FBI agents who traveled to Yap to provide support for the police immediately after the incident and are based outside the country.
According to the emergency declaration issued by FSM President David Panuelo to prevent COVID-19 from entering the country, interstate travel between the four island states is permitted since they are all COVID-free. But, the legal proceedings have been delayed until the border opens to allow witnesses from outside the country to be present at the trials.
The emergency declaration, which expires on May 31, has been extended every three months since its inception and may be extended again by the president and the FSM Congress. (Joyce McClure)