Bottleneck of speedy trial demands expected as Georgia courts reopen

Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton lifted restrictions on jury trials in his March 9 emergency order extension, clearing the way for a backlog of thousands of criminal and civil cases to take place in Georgia courtrooms for the first time in nearly a year. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

Georgia courts can reopen for jury trials after the state’s top judge Tuesday lifted a ban on trying cases inside courtrooms to avoid spreading COVID-19 during the pandemic. 

Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton lifted the restrictions on jury trials in his latest statewide judicial emergency order extension, giving court officials across Georgia the discretion to hear cases in person if they can follow health and safety guidelines. 

Many challenges lie ahead for judges and court administrators as tens of thousands of cases have backed up since the coronavirus limited the number of people who could gather in courthouses since last March. It also means a balancing act for prosecutors who will have to decide which cases go before a judge first and which ones to dismiss because of the intense caseload and defendant demands for a speedy trial.

Tens of thousands of people have waited in Georgia jails for far longer than was common a year ago as justice slowed to a crawl in the pandemic with virtual hearings providing some relief. But a significant bottleneck has built up. 

Judges have also warned that the health guidelines will severely hamper how many cases can be taken up at a time. In Fulton County, for example, the courthouse usually can handle as many as 15 hearings at a time but will be limited to two as it slowly reopens.

Melton recently outlined the importance of everything from temperature checks to masks requirements to socially distanced seating arrangements that must be accounted for as people return. A more limited jury pool makes it even more important that people are willing to serve, which in the end better ensures that defendants are getting their due process, he said.

“We’ve directed our courts to come up with those plans, but also to push those plans out to the public, so that when someone sitting on our couch receives a summons to come be a juror, they can go onto the court website and see what the court has planned for their safety,” Melton said. “They shouldn’t have to get in their car and wonder what it’s going to be like.”

“And we’re going to be making a push for jurors, in particular, to come out and serve because it is absolutely critical,” Melton said.

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said its members are worried about a potentially diminished jury pool and whether jurors who are uncomfortable with COVID-19 protocols might have their verdict influenced.

A study conducted this year by Dubin Research and Consulting found that 74% of people who answered a survey said they would worry about their health if called upon to serve on a jury.

“As much as the courtroom must be made safe for jurors, court systems also need to create physically safe and compliant deliberation spaces,” the lawyers association said in a report. “Otherwise, there is a great risk that jurors will speed through deliberations to escape the courthouse as soon as possible.”

Last week, the Georgia Senate voted in favor of a bill to temporarily suspend the state’s speedy trial requirement to give judges and prosecutors more leeway to process civil and criminal cases through the system.

But even if the bill becomes law on an expedited basis, defendants would still have the right to challenge their lengthy delay since the legislation only proposes to lift some state trial timing provisions and doesn’t affect the federal constitutional right to a speedy trial. 

The Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers have also said the pace of cases will be affected by the number of judges, attorneys, and other court officials available to handle the caseload.

Defense attorneys are working through ways to help clients make progress in the court system, said Jill Travis, executive director of the state defense lawyers association. Many people accused of crimes are still waiting in jail to see a judge long after their arrest and all parties are coping with the pandemic’s unique challenges, she said.

“We know that everybody’s going to have difficulty once the gates are open again, but we know there has to be some way to resolve the backlog,” she said. “Even private lawyers can only take on so many cases.” 

For Georgia State Courts, the extensive number of cases could make it difficult for a prosecutor to prioritize them. That could influence whether they press forward or dismiss charges that may involve a person’s third DUI or someone accused of theft, said Fulton County State Court Judge Wesley Tailor.

By the end of 2020, more than 60,000 people had cases pending across the majority of Georgia’s judicial circuits, said Peter Skandalakis, executive director, Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia.

As courts reopen, prosecutors will need enough time to review the details of each case, he said. 

“I know the DAs and the judges have been working to have as many virtual hearings as possible to move cases out of jail and those people that have been sitting in jail have received priority to try to get bonds,” Skandalakis said.

Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.