Four individuals face murder charges under indictments returned by a Bulloch County grand jury earlier this month. The total number of homicide cases now awaiting court action because of violent deaths that occurred in Bulloch County, including Statesboro, is 15.
That count, which includes some unindicted cases and even some for which arrests have been made since the grand jury met, is included in a total of 27 homicide cases pending in the four-county Ogeechee Judicial Circuit, said District Attorney Daphne Totten. Effingham County has seven homicide cases pending, Screven County has three, and Jenkins County has one homicide case awaiting its days in court.
“We have not resolved any of the homicide cases since the pandemic began,” Totten said Thursday.
A statewide COVID-19 emergency order prohibited all jury proceedings for eight months in 2020, and jury trials remain off-limits. But the Ogeechee Circuit Superior Courts were able to resolve some cases involving lesser crimes, mostly through guilty pleas and with some hearings by videoconference. Activity then picked up when grand juries were allowed to begin meeting again last fall to consider indictments.
“The fact that we have been allowed to resume grand juries has allowed us to deal with, I would say, much of the backlog,” Totten said.
An indictment is a not an indication of guilt, but only a decision by a majority of jurors, after hearing from prosecutors, that enough evidence exists to send charges forward to trial.
Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold D. Melton, after extending and modifying his mid-March emergency order each month, began to ease restrictions in October. By November, circuit judges were able to plan for a resumption of jury trials at their discretion, but Melton put those plans on hold in December after COVID-19 case counts started rising again.
Grand juries helped
However, grand juries were still allowed, with provisions for social distancing and other safety measures. Since Nov. 1, grand juries have met in all four Ogeechee Judicial Circuit counties.
“Our first grand jury sessions in each of the four counties focused on jail cases because our goal was to present the cases on defendants who were being held in jail without bond first,” Totten said. “Typically a defendant is entitled to have their case presented to a grand jury within 90 days of arrest.”
That rule remains suspended for the time being under the emergency order, she noted.
“But we wanted to focus on getting our jail cases presented and indicted because that allows an arraignment to take place,” Totten said. “Basically, we can start moving through the criminal process once the case is indicted. Until a case is indicted, sometimes we’re in a holding pattern.”
So far, grand jurors in Effingham County have met for a total of four days. A Screven County grand jury and an Effingham County grand jury met one day each, Totten reported.
But in Bulloch County, which has the circuit’s largest population, two different quarterly grand juries have met a total of nine days since the first was convened in early November. Under a localized provision of state law, Bulloch regularly empanels four grand juries each year, in February, May, August and November. But the May and August 2020 sessions were canceled in compliance with Melton’s order.
So, when the November-term grand jury was empaneled, jurors were called on for near double duty, meeting a total of seven days instead of the three to four days Totten says a Bulloch County grand jury typically meets during a three-month term.
That jury first met for four days Nov. 2-5, when the District Attorney’s Office presented 178 cases, on which jurors returned 177 indictments and one “no bill,” meaning a finding of insufficient evidence for the charges. Called back for an additional three days Nov. 30-Dec.2, the grand jury returned 129 “true bills,” or indictments, and two no bills.
A new grand jury then convened for two days so far, Feb. 1-2, and returned 88 indictments and one no bill.
More in March
But February-term grand jurors are slated to be called back March 30, when up to three unindicted homicide cases may be presented.
“Ultimately with the more serious cases, I don’t know that we’re going to really be able to deal with that backlog until jury trials resume,” Totten said. “But I do think overall our circuit has done a very good job. … Our clerks of courts have done a great job, along with our judges, in working with us so that we could hold grand jury.”
In the Bulloch County Judicial Annex, for example, the grand juries have met in the larger jury assembly room, rather than the smaller grand jury room, to allow for social distancing.
When actual jury trials can be held depends on Melton’s further updates of his emergency declaration. The 11th extension, which he signed Feb. 7, suggests an important announcement may be coming within two weeks.
“Assuming that conditions generally continue to improve, it is anticipated that the next extension order on March 9 will authorize superior and state courts, in their discretion, to resume jury trials as local conditions allow,” Melton wrote.
Over 450 cases
Since the COVID-19 restrictions began in mid-March 2020, the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office has also filed 141 cases “by accusation” in the circuit’s courts. This process, limited to certain kinds of felony crimes, such as drug possession and simple theft cases, does not require a grand jury.
Of those 141 cases, 77 were filed in Bulloch County, so after presenting 400 cases to Bulloch County grand juries, Totten said, the prosecutors have presented charges in 477 cases in the county since mid-March 2020.
This story will be revised with some details for the Saturday edition.