A bill in the General Assembly aimed at suspending the statutory speedy trial deadline during judicial emergencies would have very little impact in the county.
Douglas County Chief Superior Court Judge David Emerson said the county “has very few demands” now that jury trials are starting to take place again after being suspended for nearly a year because of the pandemic.
Last week, Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton asked members of the General Assembly to pass legislation aimed at curbing a serious backlog of jury trials resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.
The bill, which the Georgia Senate passed overwhelmingly earlier this month and is now before the state House of Representatives, would allow trial courts to continue suspending statutory speedy trial deadlines during judicial emergencies.
“That is not a big problem with us,” Emerson said.
Criminal jury trials are scheduled to resume on March 29 in Douglas County.
“We are excited and ready to get it done,” Emerson said. “As judges we hear cases, and that is what we are ready to get back to doing.”
Douglas County District Attorney Dalia Racine said many criminal cases have been resolved through other means rather than court trials.
“Under the current law, once the judicial emergency is lifted or that provision of the emergency order relating to criminal case deadlines is lifted, defendants could file demands for speedy trial and force the State to try the cases within a very narrow time frame, given our current backlog and much slower ability to try cases,” Racine wrote in an email to the Sentinel. “If the State were unable to try the cases within that time frame, the charges would be dropped against the defendants, and dangerous criminals facing serious charges would be released back into the community. It is a nightmare scenario for the entire State of Georgia, and needs to be addressed with legislation. Our lawmakers must act to prevent these criminals from playing games with our justice system.
“We don’t know when the threat from Covid 19 or the new variants that are spreading rapidly will diminish. We hope the vaccinations will reduce the spread and severity of Covid 19 in our community, but we need this legislation to give our courts flexibility when dealing with criminal cases in which speedy trial demands have been filed.”
Because of CDC social distancing guidelines, the county will use one courtroom to rotate cases because it is big enough to accommodate the new protocols.
During an address to the General Assembly last week, Melton praised judges and court staffs across the state for adjusting quickly to the new conditions the pandemic forced upon them, as in-person proceedings went virtual.
“This past year, I have witnessed first-hand that your judges and courts are remarkably resilient, flexible, creative, and committed in their mission to uphold the law and mete out justice fairly and equitably,” he said. “Justice and the rule of law cannot wait on a pandemic.”
Emerson said he is hoping more people get vaccinated and the CDC eases some of the social distancing restrictions.
“I do not think we are in nearly as bad a shape as some of the other counties,” Emerson said.
“Currently, our courts in Douglas County are planning to resume jury trials and hold them in a single courtroom, down from three courtrooms we usually could hold trials in, and judges will rotate in the courtroom to try cases that are assigned to them,” Racine said. “This will slow our ability to try cases, but it will give defendants the right to have their cases heard by juries, and will, hopefully, give our victims a chance at closure. We will be employing as many safeguards as possible to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the courtroom. Plastic dividers are being placed between certain persons in the courtroom, and jurors will maintain social distancing for the duration of jury selection and trial.”
Last week was Melton’s last appearance before the General Assembly as he announced he was stepping down in July after 16 years on the state Supreme Court.