There have been no jury trials and no grand juries since mid-March when the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic emerged.
Harold D. Melton, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia, halted such judicial proceedings in an order declaring a statewide judicial emergency due to the COVID-19 global pandemic.
Melton issued an order five days ago lifting his previous order regarding grand juries, provided certain safety measures are followed.
Under the latest order, Melton said the chief judge of each Superior Court Circuit will have authorization to resume grand jury proceedings “if doing so can be done safely and in compliance with public health guidance based on local conditions,” according to a press release from Jane Hansen, public information officer with the Supreme Court of Georgia.
In the case of the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit such authorization rests in the hands of Superior Court Chief Judge William A. Prior Jr.
The Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit, which is the largest circuit in the state, is comprised of Baldwin, Putnam, Hancock, Greene, Morgan, Jasper, Wilkinson and Jones counties.
Each of the chief judges within each of the state’s judicial circuits will be able to exercise discretion when it comes to resuming grand jury proceedings.
Based on Melton’s order, each chief judge will have to confer with the district attorney of their judicial circuit and follow the guidelines developed by the Judicial COVID-19 Task Force for conducting safe grand jury proceedings.
For the most part, jury trials and grand jury proceedings have been prohibited since mid-March across the state.
“As explained in the last extension order, this broad prohibition cannot continue, even if the pandemic continues, because our judicial system and the criminal justice system, in particular, must have some capacity to resolve cases by indictment and trial,” according to Melton’s latest order.
Jury trials, however, will remain suspended for the time being in Georgia, Melton said.
The chief justice’s order does grant chief judges of each judicial circuit the opportunity to prepare for the resumption of jury trials. The chief judges of each judicial circuit must convene in each of the counties they represent to formulate a special committee. The committee must be made up of judicial system members whose duties and responsibilities will include developing detailed safety guidelines for resuming jury trials.
“Each committee (would be) directed to use the safe jury trial guidelines developed by the Judicial COVID-19 Task Force — a group of mostly judges and lawyers appointed by Chief Justice Melton in May to help courts prepare to restore grand jury proceedings and jury trials,” according to Hansen.
Melton mentioned in his order last Thursday that the goal is to authorize the resumption of jury trials in the next 30-day extension order. His next order is expected to be issued sometime around Oct. 10, Hansen said.
It is expected to take longer before jury trials are held again in courtrooms around the state, including here in Baldwin County Superior Court.
The reason: It will take the clerks of Superior Courts across the state time to summon potential jurors.
In Baldwin County, such responsibility will be shouldered by Superior Court Clerk Mitch Longino.
As it now stands, there is a substantial backlog of criminal court cases that have not been heard by a grand jury, and until they are, those cases can’t move forward.
“Due to the ongoing public health precautions, these proceedings will not occur at the scale of with the speed they occurred before the pandemic,” Melton said. “Thus, while our justice system must resume moving cases to indictment and trial as rapidly as can be done, safely, statutory deadlines, based on indictments and jury trials, will remain suspended and tolled.”
One such county within the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit, Hancock, has not empaneled a grand jury since last September.
Assistant District Attorney T. Wright Barksdale, who will take over as the new district attorney of the local circuit in January, recently told The Union-Recorder that there are between 180 and 200 cases that need to be indicted in Hancock County, alone.
“We have a lot of cases that have been backlogged because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Barksdale said.
Barksdale prosecutes criminal cases in both Hancock and Putnam counties. He said he plans to push as many cases through the judicial process as soon as it was deemed safe to do so.
Amid the pandemic, courts throughout the state have been engaged in using the media platform Zoom to conduct hearings so the public can stay informed.
Melton praised local court officials for conducting those hearings in such a way.
“I applaud courts around the state for expanding their use of remote proceedings where possible through such technology as videoconferencing,” Melton said. “Those proceedings that can be done remotely should be done remotely. But those that cannot, based on law or practicality, must, nevertheless resume, but under strict adherence to public safety guidelines.”