The biggest challenge to seating a jury is this: The trial is expected to last six to nine months. More than 600 Fulton County residents were summoned to court at the beginning of the year, but many raised concerns they could lose their livelihoods or even their homes if selected for this trial.
Already, more than 250 jurors have been excused for hardships, prompting court officials to summon another 300 people to the downtown Atlanta courthouse on Feb. 24.
The process of hearing hardships for the new group could take several weeks, as well.
Jury selection has also been delayed by a series of incidents involving the defendants themselves. From contraband allegedly being introduced in open court to complaints filed against Fulton deputies alleging excessive use of force, the process has been derailed multiple times, sometimes resulting in hours or even entire days being lost.
While some companies continue to pay employees summoned to perform their civic duty, most of those policies lapse after a week or two, jurors have said. Those who have asked to be excused for hardships have expressed concerns about losing their careers and everything they have worked for.
Even those with government jobs, such as teachers whose positions are protected, say their students would suffer if they are required to spend most of the year in court.
“I’m less worried about my income and more worried about the detriment to the students that I teach,” a local band director said Tuesday.
Because the school system is required to keep his job open during jury service, the band director was told to come back in a couple of weeks for further questioning. Chief Judge Ural Glanville has told multiple jurors that he understands how serving on the panel for months might put a strain on their professional lives.
Jury consultant Denise de La Rue, who is not involved in the case, said getting selected to serve on such a lengthy trial would create hardships for most people.
“Obviously, the challenge is very different for someone who’s going to lose their place to live and have their utilities turned off versus someone who makes $800,000 a year,” she said. “(The wealthier) person would be hurt by this, no doubt, but they’re not going to have food insecurity. I would think that the judge would have to look at those two things differently when deciding who is going to be excused.”
One potential juror said even if his company covers his base pay, he would miss out on the extra money that comes with working nights and weekends.
“Over that long a period of time, they would probably have to replace me,” said Juror No. 573, who is paid $33 an hour but made about $90,000 last year. “My job requires me to be on call 24/7.”
The judge told him if he’s chosen, this would be his new full-time job.
“If you’re selected, this will be your place of duty,” Glanville said. “You can’t take any on-call jobs or do the things you would normally do.”
Many seeking hardship excusals have been asked to come back with signed medical affidavits or printouts of their companies’ jury policy, delaying proceedings further. Those with pre-planned travel also have been let off the hook by showing the judge they purchased their tickets or hotel rooms before receiving their jury summons.
In gauging financial hardships, Glanville has asked potential jurors about their salaries and savings and how much their spouses make.
Some say they’re struggling, living paycheck to paycheck while trying to support their families and save for the future. But even those with high-power jobs pulling in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year say they have no interest in losing money to serve as a juror for just $25 a day.
“We’re gonna end up with a bunch of jurors who have a million dollars in the bank as cash,” frustrated defense attorney Suri Chadha Jimenez told the judge.
Defense attorneys had fought to keep a potential juror who lives with her mom and grandmother and doesn’t pay rent. But the esthetician was excused after explaining she won’t make any money if she can’t see her clients.
“It’s challenging for everybody involved,” said de La Rue, who has worked on lengthy cases in the past but nothing expected to go this long. Those who could serve nine months without issue don’t exactly represent a cross-section of Fulton County’s residents, she said.
“That would not be a jury of anyone’s peers,” she said, noting those most able to serve would probably have to be retired, wealthy or unemployed and not looking for work.
Government agencies and large corporate employers are probably more equipped to fill a position for that length of time than the owner of a local radiator shop, she said.
While jurors typically aren’t paid their daily stipends until the completion of their service, the judge has said that, for a trial this long, jury services might be able to work out a different arrangement.
But for those living paycheck-to-paycheck, missing just a couple of weeks of work could cause them to fall behind on rent.
“We can’t ask that of jurors,” said de La Rue. “We just can’t.”
Other issues also have caused delays. The alleged “hand-to-hand” contraband exchange in open court involving Kahlieff Adams on Jan. 18, resulted in the judge adjourning court for the day without hearing any hardships. Prosecutors said Adams had to go to Grady Memorial Hospital after ingesting some of the contraband. Defense attorneys said deputies used a Taser on Adams in a back room, which resulted in him being taken to the hospital.
Another defendant, Rodalius Ryan, was involved in a scuffle with a Fulton County deputy in late January while awaiting transport to the courthouse. As a result, proceedings didn’t start until after 11 a.m.
Some of these incidents have resulted in those involved facing additional charges.
Prosecutors say the defendants are part of a gang called YSL, or Young Slime Life. Defense attorneys have denied the allegations, arguing YSL stands for Young Stoner Life and that it’s just a record label.
Their trial is impacting other cases, even some that were indicted before Young Thug and his alleged associates.
The trial against Atlanta rapper YFN Lucci, whose real name is Rayshawn Bennett, and 11 other alleged Bloods gang members was scheduled to start on Jan. 9, but has been delayed indefinitely. The cases are connected because prosecutors allege YFN and YSL are rival gangs. Three YSL defendants are accused of stabbing Bennett inside the Fulton County jail in February 2022.
Bennett’s attorney, Drew Findling, recently filed a new motion for bond, arguing his client is stuck in jail because of the lengthy YSL case. Bennett, who has been in jail on RICO and murder charges for nearly two years, is not expected to go to trial until at least September 2023, but only if the YSL trial ends by then, his attorney wrote.
“If Fulton County does not have the bandwidth to afford Mr. Bennett (and his co-defendants) the right to a public trial within a reasonable time, he should be granted a bond,” Findling wrote. “In the alternative, this court should change the venue of this case so that Mr. Bennett can have his case brought to trial and his case be decided by a jury of his peers.”
A status conference for Robert Aaron Long, the 23-year-old charged in the 2021 spa shooting rampage that killed eight people across metro Atlanta, was held in early January. Judge Glanville, who is presiding over that case as well, told attorneys he was “kind of covered up” but would try to set aside four days in May for motions hearings.
Defense attorneys representing YSL defendants also have seen their other cases put on hold. Young Thug’s attorney Brian Steel, for instance, also represents former Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson. She is accused of hindering the police investigation in the aftermath of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder for allegedly telling two Glynn County police officers not to arrest Travis McMichael, the man who shot and killed Arbery. She is also charged with violating her oath of office.
Johnson, who was indicted in September 2021, had her court hearing delayed in late December.
Glanville recently gave a tentative schedule for the next few weeks. He plans to hear more juror hardships next week before allowing attorneys to review the potential jurors’ 250-answer questionnaires the following week. Several motions filed in the case, including Steel’s motion to limit the use of rap lyrics as evidence, could be heard later this month.