WILBER, Neb. — After a couple of starts and stops, the murder trial of Aubrey Trail was suspended Wednesday without a single witness taking the stand.
The presiding judge gave no explanation for the delay, and both prosecuting attorneys and those representing Trail said they could not comment on why testimony did not proceed, as scheduled, on Wednesday. That included any comment on whether the health of Trail, who has suffered two recent heart attacks and a stroke while imprisoned, was a factor.
But later in the day, one of the attorneys representing Trail was seen leaving the west campus of Bryan Medical Center, the Lincoln hospital where those being held in a state prison, like Trail, are taken for medical treatment.
Overall, it was a confusing day in the courtroom of Saline County District Judge Vicky Johnson, who called off proceedings for the day at about 1:45 p.m. after convening court, and then dismissing jurors, three times earlier.
“We can’t go forward today,” Johnson told jurors, before telling them to return at 9 a.m. on Thursday.
The first witnesses in the expected three-week trial were scheduled to begin testifying at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, but after about an 80-minute delay in starting the trial, the judge called in the jury and told them to come back at 1 p.m.
Johnson did not disclose the exact nature of the morning delay, though she mentioned that the courthouse had problems with its elevator and its air conditioning.
Absent during the entire day was Trail, who is using a wheelchair after recent health problems. The courtroom at the Saline County Courthouse is on the third floor, and deputies have used the elevator to transport Trail in the past. But a repairman checked out the elevator at midmorning on Wednesday, and it was working. And the air conditioning in the courtroom was also operating.
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When the jury came back at 1 p.m., Judge Johnson said she had received two phone calls that one of the jurors was blogging information about the trial, which would violate her order that jurors not discuss the case with anyone else. There was also a report, from a State Supreme Court official, that the mother of one of the jurors had posted a comment about a story on a Lincoln television station’s website about the trial, mentioning that her daughter was a juror.
That caused a second delay as the judge questioned each juror, one by one, in her private chambers. Afterward, she sent them out of the courtroom, saying she was waiting for a phone call before deciding whether testimony would begin.
After the jury left, Johnson addressed those in the audience, which included about 10 reporters, saying she was concerned about the “atmosphere” created by media coverage of the high-profile trial and was contemplating whether she needed to take “some action,” including sequestering the jury and limiting media coverage of the trial.
Earlier, the judge had issued a ruling allowing expanded media coverage of the trial, which allows pool video and photographs to be shot, and reporters to tweet reports about the court proceedings.
One concern, Johnson said Wednesday, was that jurors and sequestered witnesses had to walk past a group of reporters and audio technicians gathered just outside the courtroom. That, the judge said, raised concerns that they could hear comments recorded in court.
After a very brief recess, jurors were ordered back to the courtroom and Johnson told them that the trial could not proceed on Wednesday. She offered no explanation.
Wednesday night, Johnson emailed an order to Nebraska media outlets reversing her earlier decision to allow expanded media coverage. The order bans further “live tweeting” of the trial and bars reporters from taking cellphones or laptop computers used for writing stories into the courtroom.
Johnson criticized some online comments by members of the public. She also cited concerns that the instant messages could jeopardize a fair trial for Trail and his girlfriend, Bailey Boswell.
Trail, 52, is charged with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder in the 2017 slaying and dismemberment of Sydney Loofe, a 24-year-old store clerk from Lincoln.
Trail and Boswell lured Loofe to her death via the online dating app Tinder, according to prosecutors. Both Trail and Boswell face the possibility of the death penalty if convicted.
Trail’s attorneys, as well as Trail himself, dispute that the slaying was premeditated. They say that Loofe was a willing participant in the filming of a sexual fantasy with Trail and two other women and that she was accidentally choked to death.
Trail has said he didn’t think police would believe that an ex-con had killed someone accidentally, so he didn’t report Loofe’s death. During opening arguments, one of Trail’s attorneys, Joe Murray, said the body was cut up and bagged so it would fit in the trunk of Trail’s car.
Loofe’s body was found on Dec. 4, 2017 — about three weeks after she disappeared — in farm fields and ditches in Clay County, which is about an hour’s drive west of Wilber, where Trail and Boswell had rented an apartment.