The Douglas Judicial Circuit plans to resume grand jury proceedings next month and could possibly have jury trials again by December, Chief Superior Court Judge David Emerson said.
Emerson said he and the other judges in the Douglas Judicial Circuit are working on ways to make it safe for jurors to come back to the courthouse.
Supreme Court of Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton on Sept. 10 extended his judicial emergency order until Oct. 10, but he also ordered that grand jury proceedings resume.
While jury trials remain on hold, Melton indicated earlier this month he intends to order trials to resume when he issues the next 30-day extension in October.
“As explained in the last extension order, this broad prohibition cannot continue, even if the pandemic continues,” the chief justice wrote in his Sept. 10 order. “The criminal justice system, in particular, must have some capacity to resolve cases by indictment and trial.”
All grand jury proceedings and jury trials have been on hold since mid-March when Melton declared a statewide judicial emergency as Georgia virtually shut down to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Emerson said Douglas County’s first grand jury will report Wednesday, Oct. 14. And, he said, assuming Melton orders jury trials to resume in his next order on Oct. 10 as expected, he hopes Douglas will be ready to restart jury trials in early December.
“We’re going to do everything we can to make it safe,” Emerson said. “The judges and staff are going to meet every other week to plan how we’re going to do this. … We plan to keep it so we minimize the number of people, and we give people adequate space. And of course everybody’s going to have to wear masks.”
In Douglas, grand juries consist of 23 people and usually one or two alternates, Emerson said. He said the large jury assembly room on the fourth floor of the courthouse will be used for grand jury proceedings, which will allow for social distancing of at least six feet between each person. He said the jury assembly room is much larger than the regular grand jury room.
Emerson said Melton’s order recommends each judicial circuit summon two grand juries instead of one in case someone gets sick.
In Georgia, all capital felonies such as murder have to be presented to a grand jury, which will either issue a “true bill” of indictment if it believes there is enough evidence for charges or a “no bill” which results in the defendant not being charged and released.
State law requires capital felonies go before a grand jury within 90 days — which hasn’t been possible for the past six months because of COVID-19. Emerson said the state’s chief justice has stayed those deadlines during the emergency. But with the latest order for courts to resume grand jury proceedings, Emerson said it is important to present those cases before a grand jury.
“We have to get the grand jury in place and start addressing those cases so we can eventually get them before a trial jury — a traverse jury — as soon as we can,” Emerson said. “Unfortunately people continue to get arrested, and we have people in jail that we need to get to their cases.”
Emerson said that while Douglas is not to the point of being able to summon trial jurors yet, the clerk of courts would begin to summon potential jurors in October if the chief justice allows it. That would make it possible for jury trials to restart in December, Emerson said.
Emerson said social distancing in courtrooms will be a challenge, but he said he and the other judges have been looking at ways to make it safe for all potential jurors.
He said rather than having 12 jurors in the jury box, there might be six people in the jury box — all socially distanced from one another in staggered chairs — and the other jurors spread around the courtroom.
“We’ve already marked off the pews in the courtrooms, and then I plan to mark them off some more so people will have to sit six feet away from each other,” Emerson said.
Additionally, Emerson said Douglas County’s courts will take other measures like staggering the times when potential jurors come to the courthouse “so we don’t have 100 people at a time.”
“We’ll spread that out as well,” he said. “It’s going to take us a lot more time to get things done because we will have them spread out so much.”
The Douglas Judicial Circuit includes three Superior Court Judges — Emerson, Beau McClain and Cynthia Adams — and two State Court Judges — Eddie Barker and Brian Fortner.
Emerson said the five courts have historically tried cases the same week to save the county money by summonsing a large pool of potential jurors at one time.
But Emerson said in order to have room for potential jurors to socially distance, the schedule will have to be staggered when jury trials resume. He said plans are for one week with two superior court judges trying cases and the next week with two state court judges and one superior court judge trying cases.
He said there are more jury rooms than courtrooms, which will allow judges to split jurors up so that there are no more than six or seven in a jury room at a time.
While there haven’t been juries at the courthouse in six months, the county’s judges have still been holding proceedings that don’t require juries, including domestic cases, using video conferences on Webex, which is similar to Zoom.
Emerson said: “I walk into an empty courtroom now,” noting that only his clerk, a sheriff’s deputy and a court reporter are in-person with him during most proceedings.
He said court hearings remain public and people can come watch the video conference of the hearing on a 70-inch screen set up in courtrooms. Or, he said, people can call and get the meeting ID and watch hearings via the Webex app on their phones or on their computers.