Western Circuit Superior Court Chief Judge Eric Norris had planned to restart jury trials in January after a nearly 10-month pause, but the coronavirus didn’t cooperate. Now, local judges are eyeing March, with grand jury proceedings, jury selection and trials held at the Classic Center to allow for social distancing.
“I don’t think the courts have ever had to deal with something like this,” Norris said. “The worst we’ve had is a snowstorm.”
Harold Melton, the chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, declared a judicial emergency when the pandemic started in March that put proceedings requiring large numbers of people on hold; then in October he told chief circuit judges to form committees to decide how to restart those proceedings safely. In the Western Circuit, that committee included trial judges, prosecutors, lawyers, doctors, commissioners and the managers of Clarke and Oconee counties. “For Clarke, we quickly realized the courthouse just wasn’t set up for gatherings,” Norris said. The plan for Oconee County is to keep trials at the courthouse, while holding jury selection at the civic center.
Even in normal times, the Athens-Clarke County Courthouse is cramped—especially during jury selection, when hundreds of potential jurors cram into the atrium and courtrooms, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder for hours at a time. That’s why ACC is building a new judicial center as part of the SPLOST 2020 sales-tax program, but it’s still in the early planning stages and won’t open for years.
“Our courthouse is too small,” said Superior Court Judge Lisa Lott. “We don’t have the resources to spread people out and make them feel safe.”
For the time being, Norris and other courthouse officials have opted to rent out the Classic Center, where spacious ballrooms will allow for safer grand-jury hearings and jury trials. The county commission has approved spending up to $400,000, although Norris said that estimate is a “worst-case scenario,” and the final figure will depend on how many trials take place and how long they last. (The Classic Center is a quasi-government entity, but it operates independently and is run like a business.)
“The Classic Center is a decent venue because it has a lot of space, a lot of different rooms, big rooms, places for defendants to go in and out,” Lott said.
While jury selection and jury trials have been on pause, the backlog of cases is growing. Lott said she has 130 cases on her docket awaiting trial. Another 400 defendants are awaiting a grand jury hearing to determine if they’ll be indicted, according to Norris.
Melton’s order temporarily suspended the right to a speedy trial, Norris said, but the judges said they’re doing everything they can to ensure people aren’t rotting in a cell—for example, holding bond hearings by video and releasing inmates who are at risk for COVID-19. However, grand jury hearings can’t be held on Zoom because secrecy is required, and going online runs the risk of someone recording it, Norris said.
“I have tried very hard to get bond cases into court as soon as possible and take into account the pandemic, people sitting in jail, the inmate’s health,” said Lott, a former public defender. “If someone can be released, they should be released.”
But not everyone can be released because some may be a threat to the community, she continued. Superior Court has jurisdiction over felonies, including serious charges of violent crime. Lott recalled a recent hearing in which a man accused of aggravated assault and domestic violence asked for reduced bond, but his partner “testified she was scared half to death if he were to get out.”
Another issue with restarting jury proceedings now is that Clarke County has a new sheriff, John Q. Williams, who is in charge of courthouse security, as well as a new district attorney, Deborah Gonzalez, who is likely to lose some veteran prosecutors. “She needs time to build her team up,” Norris said.
Norris said he’s also worried about how many people called for jury duty will show up during a pandemic. He’s planning on doing public service announcements on safety precautions at the Classic Center. “We can’t do a jury trial without people,” he said.
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