Federal court in Atlanta suspends jury trials until 2021

The Richard B. Russell Federal Building, which contains the Atlanta DEA offices, is seen on Wednesday, August 5, 2020, in Atlanta. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
The Richard B. Russell Federal Building, which contains the Atlanta DEA offices, is seen on Wednesday, August 5, 2020, in Atlanta. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

Jury trials have been on hold since March

Federal jury trials in Atlanta will be suspended until January because of the coronavirus pandemic, the court’s chief judge said in an order issued Monday.

The order also suspends jury trials throughout the Northern District of Georgia, which includes courthouses in Newnan, Gainesville and Rome.

“The number of COVID-19 deaths in Georgia and the Northern District continues to rise, and no vaccine or cure is yet available to the public,” Chief Judge Thomas Thrash wrote.

Chief Judge Thomas Thrash of the Northern District of Georgia, during a court hearing. (AJC sketch artist Walter Cumming.)
Chief Judge Thomas Thrash of the Northern District of Georgia, during a court hearing. (AJC sketch artist Walter Cumming.)

Credit: Walter Cumming

Credit: Walter Cumming

Thrash’s order contrasts with a push in the Georgia state courts to restart jury trials before the end of the year.

His order cited information from the state Department of Public Health showing new COVID-19 cases in Georgia exceeding 1,000 a day, a higher daily tally than existed when jury trials were initially suspended in March.

Moreover, Thrash added, four counties — Fulton, Gwinnett, DeKalb and Cobb — within the Northern District account for almost 30 percent of cases in Georgia.

Emergency conditions have prevented defense lawyers from having in-person meetings with clients held in custody and have severely limited communications with those clients in general. Interviews of some witnesses have also been a problem due to quarantine regulations in states that apply to persons traveling to and from Georgia, Thrash said.

“These circumstances and others have severely impeded if not prevented counsels' ability to prepare for trial,” Thrash said.

The continued spread of the virus in the U.S. and Georgia, he said, also means that the resumption of jury trials cannot await the complete demise of COVID-19. At the same time, jury trials will not restart when the court believes the health and safety of those appearing for trial cannot be adequately protected, Thrash said.

Stephanie Kearns, who heads the federal public defender’s office in Atlanta, said the pandemic has greatly hampered her lawyers' ability to prepare for trial. This includes her defenders' inability to gain the needed trust of their clients because they have been unable to meet with them in person.

“It’s also difficult to go out in the field and interview a witness when you knock on a door with a mask on and practice social distancing,” Kearns said. “It’s been a really difficult situation. I’m very pleased the court is recognizing it as well. I feel like this court has been really conscientious about not putting people at risk."

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