Public Safety

Judge delays trial for Ely man accused of killing James Booher due to high coronavirus positivity rates

Matthew Robbins
Matthew Robbins

CEDAR RAPIDS — A federal judge Monday delayed the trial of an Ely man, accused of robbing and killing a Marion man who went missing in 2014, because of high coronavirus positivity rates in Eastern Iowa.

The trial for Matthew Robbins, 46, charged in a robbery conspiracy that ended in the fatal shooting of James Booher, 51, was to start Nov. 30 in U.S. District Court, which has been pending since last year. But prosecutors, in a joint motion with Robbins’ lawyer, asked to continue the trial in order to have a fair trial for both sides based on the number of days the trial will last — 10 to 15 days, with 40 to 60 witnesses, many coming from out of state and from various prisons or jails — and jury members who will be selected from various communities, including Linn County, which shows a positivity rate of 13 percent.

As of Oct. 31, the Iowa Department of Public Health said the state’s 14-day average positivity rate was 13.5 percent, prosecutors noted.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Lisa Williams also pointed out two of the witnesses coming from out of state had health-related concerns traveling during a pandemic. Travel during this time presents an increased risk of exposure for the traveler and anyone who comes into contact with them.

Another concern is the upcoming cold and flu season, which causes symptoms similar to the coronavirus. The only way to distinguish those from the virus is a test, and those results can take 24 to 72 hours to obtain.

Williams also pointed out this trial would have followed the Thanksgiving holiday, when potential jurors and witnesses will be gathering in larger groups, which can increase the risk of exposure.

A civil trial last month ended in a mistrial because a trial participant tested positive for the virus and the jury had to be excused, she noted. That was to be the first jury trial in this district.

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Multiple courthouse employees also have tested positive or been exposed to a family member or another who tested positive.

Robbins is already serving a federal prison sentence for drug and firearms and would not be released until March 2025, so he wouldn’t be prejudiced with a delay in this trial, prosecutors noted.

The prosecution and defense asked that the trial be continued until spring.

U.S. District Chief Judge Leonard Strand granted the continuance Monday afternoon and said he would contact the lawyers to set a new date in the spring.

Robbins, Danielle Busch, 30, and William L. Yancey, 43, both of Cedar Rapids, were charged in May 2019 with robbery affecting interstate commerce, conspiracy to commit robbery affecting interstate commerce, and using, carrying and brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence resulting in murder, according to an unsealed indictment.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has declined to say whether Booher’s body had been found.

Yancey, along with Robbins, is already serving a prison term for drug and firearm convictions. Robbins had been linked to Booher’s disappearance during his trial but had been charged with only firearms and drug offenses.

All three defendants are accused of robbing Booher of methamphetamine and money by force on May 31, 2014, according to the indictments. They also are accused of having a firearm during the robbery and fatally shooting Booher.

The firearms charge is a “death constituting murder” charge under federal law.

In April, Busch pleaded guilty to one count each of conspiracy to commit robbery affecting interstate commerce and using, carrying and brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence resulting in murder. She faces up to 20 years. Her sentencing is set for Nov. 12.

Yancey’s trial is set for Jan. 11.

Shortly after Booher went missing, authorities considered him a homicide victim, but nobody was charged in his death until last year.

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Evidence from the first firearms trial for Robbins, which ended in a hung jury, showed Robbins knew Booher and had bought meth from him. Booher was robbed June 1, 2014, by Robbins and another man, which is the last day Booher was seen alive, according to court documents in the firearms case.

Robbins and Busch bought meth from Booher on May 31, 2014, and then contacted him later to set up a time to buy a larger quantity, according to court documents. Booher went to Robbins’ home later that night and wasn’t seen again.

Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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