Prospective Houston County jurors will soon assemble in a 65,000-square-foot conference center at the fairgrounds. In Hall County, the courtroom gallery will become a socially distanced jury box. And courtrooms across the state will have plexiglass barriers protecting key participants wearing masks or transparent face shields.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, no jury trials have taken place in a Georgia state court in seven months, temporarily denying a right so fundamental it was written into the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. All the while, 20,000 defendants remain in custody, many awaiting their speedy trial.
Even though the deadly pandemic remains a part of everyday life, courthouses across the state are preparing to resume jury trials.
“We have citizens presumed to be innocent who are sitting in jail waiting for their cases to be decided by a jury of their peers,” Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton said. “That’s a burden on the individuals in particular and the system as a whole.”
On Wednesday, Melton began rolling out public service announcements about the importance of jury service.
“The very fabric of American justice depends on citizens at the community level joining in,” he said in one. “Justice needs jurors."
On Oct. 10, Melton signed an order allowing for jury trials to resume, provided strict safety precautions are in place. But during a recent Judicial Council of Georgia meeting, he acknowledged reports that indicate “this winter is going to be rough and the COVID is not nearly done with us just yet.”
Melton’s order does not require counties to restart jury trials, only to make a plan for when that happens. Most jurisdictions are confronting extraordinary obstacles.
People entering any Georgia courthouse must wear a mask or could be confronted by armed deputies demanding to know why they aren’t. Many jurors will wear transparent face shields, as will witnesses and defendants — so their facial expressions are visible to others as a trial plays out. Plexiglass shields, hand sanitizer stations and temperature screenings will be as common as closing arguments. In many counties, jurors will deliberate in a courtroom, not in the close quarters of the jury room.
Court administrators will become de facto air traffic controllers, staggering times for trials and hearings to begin so crowds of jurors, lawyers and litigants won’t show up at the same time.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
‘We don’t have a choice’
Jury trials have already resumed in some parts of the country. The first one in Georgia occurred earlier this month in federal court in Columbus in an elaborately retrofitted courtroom.
“It went well,” said Dave Bunt, clerk of court. “All in all, we were tremendously impressed with the jurors' willingness to serve under these circumstances.”
Fulton Superior Court Judge Shawn LaGrua said a resumption of jury trials will help return the court system to a semblance of normalcy.
“We don’t have a choice," she said. "We just have to be careful how we do it.”
Fulton’s first jury trial is tentatively set for Jan. 11, said LaGrua, who heads the chief justice’s COVID-19 task force. Three large courtrooms at the courthouse will be used first, and not all at the same time.
“What happens with COVID in the next 60 days will determine what happens,” she said. “We will start slowly.”
As will be the case in most jurisdictions, defendants who have been in custody the longest will be the highest priority, she said.
‘Some degree of diplomacy’
Cherokee County has tentatively set its first jury trial on Dec. 7, clerk Patty Baker said. It will be a misdemeanor case for which only six jurors are required.
“We’re taking lots of precautions,” she said. “The safety of our jurors is paramount.”
Fayette County could have its first jury trials in early December, Superior Court Judge Fletcher Sams said.
One looming question is how many summoned jurors will show up.
“We have those who think this is a simple hoax to those who are completely paranoid, and all those in between,” Sams said. “But one thing that is real is some people’s fear about this virus. We must always remember that.”
Melton, Georgia’s chief justice since 2018, said the judiciary is serious about courthouse mask mandates.
“It will have to be handled with some degree of diplomacy — how to artfully deal with those not wearing masks,” Melton said. “They can first offer a mask to someone and work up the level of severity from there.”
DeKalb District Attorney Sherry Boston said it could take three years for her office to rebound from the shutdown. DeKalb jury trials are now expected to resume shortly after the beginning of next year.
“This is a disease that kills,” she said. “We will use common sense, compassion and empathy to get through this.”
Many attorneys are anxious about the onset of jury trials, Marietta lawyer Lawrence Zimmerman said.
“As a lawyer, you’ll have concerns about your personal safety at the same time you’re fighting for your client,” said Zimmerman, president of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “It’s going to be distracting.”
Henry County Superior Court Chief Judge Brian Amero has asked the state Department of Public Health if there is a number of coronavirus cases a county needs to be under before it’s safe enough to restart jury trials. He suggested having a rate of no more than 100 cases per 100,000 county residents.
“Everything that is above 100 is called uncontrollable community spread,” he said.
On Thursday, the health department posted Henry County’s rate: 169 for every 100,000 residents. The rates for Fulton were 160 per 100,000; DeKalb, 152; Clayton, 155; Cobb, 129; and Gwinnett, 158, the state data said. Those numbers reflect the infection rate for the past two weeks.
“When you have uncontrolled community spread and jury trials, you’re going to have people coming into your building with COVID,” Amero said.
Responding to a jury summons, however, is far different from needing to stock up on groceries, the judge added.
“People can choose whether they want to go to Publix or eat at a local restaurant,” Amero said. “They can’t choose whether they want to see us.”