Chief justice allows jury trials to begin anew during pandemic

SEPTEMBER 2018 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold D. Melton  (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

SEPTEMBER 2018 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold D. Melton (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Citing a decline in the surge of COVID-19 cases, Georgia’s chief justice announced Tuesday that jury trials may resume “effective immediately.”

Judges can now allow trials to be held “if that can be done safely” and in accordance with plans developed to protect all involved, said a judicial emergency order signed by Chief Justice Harold Melton of the Supreme Court of Georgia.

Melton suspended jury trials a year ago because of the pandemic. In October, he allowed trials to resume, but halted them again in December when COVID-19 cases spiked statewide.

Melton’s most recent order says courts “in their discretion, may resume jury trials as local conditions allow.” The chief justice cited mounting backlogs of cases across the state as reasons to move forward.

Kimberly Dymecki, president of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said she is hopeful judges will prioritize who is tried first, such as defendants who have been in custody without bond the longest and those who have filed speedy trial demands.

“It’s a balancing act for your clients’ rights to be protected and for you to be safe,” she said.

GACDL has already asked Gov. Brian Kemp to make lawyers eligible to receive vaccines. And now, with Melton’s new order, the association will renew that request, Dymecki said.

“The vast majority of lawyers have not been vaccinated,” she said. “Requiring non-vaccinated lawyers to go into a courtroom and try a case is, from our perspective, unfortunate.”

Pete Skandalakis, head of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, echoed Dymecki’s concerns.

“A lot of people have been touched by this virus, both outside the court system and inside it,” he said. “We must work hard to gain the trust of the members of the public who will be called in to serve on juries.”

Each judicial circuit has been required to put in place safety protocols to protect people entering courthouses, Skandalakis said. “The chief justice trusts the chief judges of each circuit to have a very workable plan in place and to adhere to that plan once jury trials begin again.”

Some jurisdictions are moving forward right away. Monroe County Superior Court has already scheduled its first jury trial for March 22, said Lindsey Taylor, clerk of court.

In an upcoming public service announcement, Melton will call on Georgians to show up for jury service.

“You and every citizen of Georgia are critical to this process because we cannot conduct a trial by jury without jurors, without you,” he says. “We have put into place the most rigorous safety protocols available.”

They include screening, temperature checks, masks, plexiglass barriers, touch-free evidence technology, constant surface cleaning and the reconfiguration of courtrooms and jury spaces to ensure social distancing.