More than 55 Bulloch County adults were summoned as potential jurors for Superior Court jury selection beginning next Monday, when Supreme Court of Georgia Chief Justice Harold D. Melton signed his order Tuesday allowing jury trials to resume.
Four days, March 23-26, are marked on the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit Superior Courts calendar for a jury trial in Bulloch County. If it occurs as expected, it will be the first jury trial in the four-county circuit since Melton’s initial COVID-19 pandemic emergency order halted all jury proceedings one year ago.
“In anticipation of the emergency order allowing for jury trials in each particular circuit or county as deemed appropriate given COVID numbers and given the ability to distance and protect people in the process, we went ahead and summonsed the jury for Monday,” Ogeechee Circuit Chief Judge F. Gates Peed told the Statesboro Herald.
Melton, after extending his March 14, 2020, order every month with some revisions, allowed counties where sufficient planning had taken place to resume convening grand juries last fall. Since Nov. 1, grand juries have met in all four Ogeechee Judicial Circuit counties: Bulloch, Effingham, Jenkins and Screven. In Bulloch County alone, two quarterly grand juries have returned 394 felony indictments.
Last fall, the same committees of court officials, prosecutors, public defenders and law enforcement representatives that planned for resumption of grand juries also planned for jury trials to resume with social distancing, protective gear and, in some places, alternative courtrooms.
At that point, chief judges such as Peed were given discretion on when to resume jury trials, and he said last October he hoped to hold one in Bulloch County by the end of 2020. But after statewide COVID-19 case numbers soared again, Melton, on Dec. 23, again suspended any jury trials not already underway, and local plans were put on hold.
Fall planning helped
Still, the planning done last fall left the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit prepared to act when Melton indicated, in his February order, that his March order would probably give a new go-head for jury trials, Peed said.
Melton’s new order states that courts may resume jury trials, “if that can be done safely and in accordance with a final jury trial plan developed in collaboration with the local committee of judicial system participants and incorporated into the court’s written operating guidelines for in-person proceedings.”
Here, the jury assembly room, a larger room on the ground floor of the Bulloch County Judicial Annex, has been set up for use in the jury selection and potential trials. It has moveable chairs, unlike the fixed seating in the smaller upstairs courtrooms, and can seat about 50 people with the planned spacing, Peed said. It was also used for the November and February quarterly grand juries.
In contrast, the regular courtrooms are hard-pressed to seat 20 people with social distancing, he said.
Up to three trials
Interviewed late Tuesday afternoon, Peed and Bulloch County Clerk of Courts Heather Banks McNeal had spent the day in a “calendar call,” hearing updates from prosecutors and defense attorneys on the status of cases to gauge which might be ready for trial.
Three cases could go to juries, McNeal said.
“I think everything will work out well, I hope,” she said. “We’ve done a lot of planning and we’re ready to get things back moving.”
She and her staff ended up sending 200 summonses to Bulloch County residents’ addresses toward a goal of having about 55 potential jurors present and available for the selection Monday. Many notices are returned for incorrect addresses, and other citizens call with various excuses, McNeal said.
Peed also said that three or four of the cases could potentially go to jury trials. But he and McNeal noted not every case that could go to a jury actually does.
Besides the possibility of a last-minute plea, another factor is the number of juries that can be empaneled from the available potential jurors. A trial jury, consisting of 12 jurors and up to three alternates for the longest trial currently expected, must be drawn from a qualified panel of at least 30 citizens, with both the prosecution and defense having some strikes, Peed noted.
“We could deplete our panel with one or more selections,” he said. “But we’re not going to wear our panel out. We’re going to get a process down before we lock and load and go forward.”
So far, the only case with assigned trial dates is one expected to last four days and assigned to March 23-26.
“This first case that we’ll select is a case that has been selected before,” Peed said. “In fact, it was selected and was ready to be tried when the first COVID order was entered and we dismissed that jury. We’re trying to get back to where we were a year ago.”
But a new jury must be selected. Peed declined to identify the case, saying he did not want to appear to convey anything to potential jurors.
However, a case involving a sex crime charge was moving toward trial at the time of last year’s cancellation. It is not a murder case.
Peed did mention murder cases when asked if more jury trials will occur in the circuit in 2021 than in a typical year, if trials are able to continue.
“Probably so, simply because of what’s backlogged over a year,” he said. “I mean, we had plenty to do before COVID hit, but there have been in the circuit somewhere between 15 and 20 murders during the COVID year, and we had some pending before then.”
The counties and their sheriff’s departments have worked with the judicial circuit judges to prevent the backlog from getting worse, Peed said. The courts held hearings, including some by teleconferencing, and some cases ended in pleas or bench trials.
“Even though it might sound like the system has been stopped, it really hasn’t, because everything but jury trials had been moving forward …,” Peed said. “We shifted our attention to things that could go forward and we’ve marched forward with them.”