Judge relents, allows lawyers concerned about COVID to appear remotely

Ricky Dubose (front) and Donnie Rowe enter the Putnam County courthouse on June 21, 2017. Dubose and Rowe have been charged with killing two guards in an escape from a prison bus. A hearing is scheduled Monday, Feb. 22, 2021, to discuss a request by Rowe's defense team to postpone the trial. (Photo: BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM)
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Ricky Dubose (front) and Donnie Rowe enter the Putnam County courthouse on June 21, 2017. Dubose and Rowe have been charged with killing two guards in an escape from a prison bus. A hearing is scheduled Monday, Feb. 22, 2021, to discuss a request by Rowe's defense team to postpone the trial. (Photo: BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM)

A Putnam County judge has relented to lawyers’ concerns about in-person court proceedings during the coronavirus pandemic by allowing a death-penalty hearing set for Monday to be held remotely.

In an order signed last week, Superior Court Chief Judge Brenda Trammell said she will allow attorneys to appear via Zoom. The lawyers represent Donnie Rowe, charged with killing two guards during an escape from a prison bus in 2017. Prosecutors are seeking the ultimate punishment against Rowe and co-defendant Ricky Dubose, who will be tried separately.

Monday’s hearing will focus on the defense’s request to postpone the trial, now set to begin April 5. In court motions, the lawyers — Frank Hogue of Macon and state capital defenders Adam Levin and Erin Wallace of Athens — said the pandemic will still be in effect and a potential danger at that time.

Macon attorney Frank Hogue (standing) during a court hearing in 2015. (AJC file)
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Macon attorney Frank Hogue (standing) during a court hearing in 2015. (AJC file)

Credit: Bill Rankin

Credit: Bill Rankin

Trammell had previously scheduled the continuance hearing for Dec. 11. When she refused the defense’s request to hold it remotely, the lawyers declined to appear in court. Trammell then denied their motion to postpone the trial.

In a new order issued last week, Trammell indicated she will consider the continuance request at the videoconference hearing.

The judge noted that Putnam County has called in grand jurors and has been holding in-person court proceedings for both criminal and civil matters, all the while following mandated protocols for courtroom safety. These proceedings have occurred “without incident,” the judge said, although she did not specify how she knew that to be so.

Donnie Rowe (left) and Ricky Dubose, after their arrest in 2017. They are accused of killing two Georgia correctional officers. (AJC file photo)
Caption
Donnie Rowe (left) and Ricky Dubose, after their arrest in 2017. They are accused of killing two Georgia correctional officers. (AJC file photo)

Credit: George Mathis

Credit: George Mathis

In a recent motion asking Trammell to consider holding Monday’s hearing remotely, the defense team cited health statistics that show the risk of getting COVID-19 in Putnam was “extremely high.” They noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the best way to protect yourself and reduce the spread is to limit interactions with others as much as possible.

Even though she relented to the videoconference hearing, Trammell expressed her misgivings about it.

“(T)his court does not believe proceeding other than in person is necessary, desirable or proper in this case, other than on any but the current scheduling, and specifically, continuance issues,” she wrote in her order. A hearing tentatively set for March 31 on evidentiary issues is to be an in-person court proceeding, she said.

On Sunday, Hogue, who is at greater risk because he is 66, said the defense team has no comment on Trammell’s latest order.

At the urging of Chief Justice Harold Melton, judges across the state have been holding videoconference hearings instead of requiring lawyers and litigants to show up in court during the pandemic. Jury trials are currently suspended because of safety concerns, although Melton has indicated he may allow them to resume in the coming months.

If the Rowe trial proceeds as planned, jury selection will begin April 5 in Grady County, because of pretrial publicity. Once jurors are picked there, they will be taken to Eatonton for the trial at the Putnam courthouse.