COVID-19 changing the future of courtrooms in the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit

COVID-19 changing the future of courtrooms in the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit

COLUMBUS, Ga. (WTVM) - As schools and businesses are adjusting their policies because of COVID-19, courtrooms are doing the same thing.

The state of Georgia has under an emergency judicial order for almost five months.

Currently, jury trials and grand juries are not allowed to happen under the emergency order. Whenever they are allowed to reconvene, officials will have to look at where people can come together safely.

Long gone are the days where defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges would gather around the bench to discuss a case.

“If you think about jury duty, you can’t really impanel 250 and have them waiting in halls, people passing back and forth between them, sharing small bathrooms and water fountains, and keep them safe,” Chief Judge Gil McBride said.

Since March 14, seating grand juries and holding jury trials have come to a halt.

“Because the one thing we don’t want to do is put people at risk when they come to do public service. We want to make sure we’re as safe as possible,” said Senior Assistant District Attorney Don Kelly.

Whenever the emergency order is lifted, things will have to change to keep people safe in the courtroom. For now, key players are using Zoom, but that won’t work for trials.

Defense attorney Stacey Jackson said Muscogee County is looking at the possibility of using larger spaces like the trade center to hold trials. But what will happen in smaller, more rural counties like Talbot, Chattahoochee and Marion?

“{I was} talking to a judge and prosecutor in Meriwether County,” said Jackson “They’re considering having grand jury in the local high school in the gym.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic will add to the existing backlog of cases in the Chattahoochee Circuit.

“Right now we have approximately 400 cases waiting to be presented to a grand jury, but we cannot compile a grand jury,” Kelly said.

“So, can you imagine having a 2020 case when you have so many cases in front of yours?” Jackson asked.

McBride said the technological improvements like Zoom are here to stay. They’re not even allowed to send summons to jurors, so it could be October or November before trials are up and running again. One thing to note is people will not be allowed to wear a mask when being questioned in a jury pool.

“The jurors cannot be wearing masks because under the confrontation clause of the constitution, a defendant on charge has the right to confront his accuser and see what they look like, observe their body language, see if they’re smirking, observe their expressions. You can’t have people wearing masks in jury trials. That work under the constitution,” McBride said.

Jackson said masks should not be a problem once a jury is picked. The issue then turns to the witness stand and making sure jurors can see a witnesses face while being questioned.

Copyright 2020 WTVM. All rights reserved.