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How pandemic forced courts to stop, then change to catch up
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A sign point visitors to a public viewing room Wednesday, March 10, 2021, inside the Hall County courthouse for an upcoming trial. A grand jury room is set up for public viewing of trials as a COVID-19 safety precaution. - photo by Scott Rogers

For Northeastern Judicial Circuit District Attorney Lee Darragh, there are knowns and unknowns about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown on the backlog of cases.

He’s certain that the courts will be able to catch up, but when that will be is unclear.

With a few more logistical problems and adjustments than normal, the Hall County court held its first day of trials March 10, almost a year since the shutdown.

Court administrator Jason Stephenson said 59 of the 180 jurors summoned were deferred or excused prior to the day’s trial, though he was unsure how many were for COVID-related concerns.

Superior Court Judge Bonnie Oliver presided over the first case, which concerned drug possession. Some 80 to 90 jurors reported for duty, which Stephenson said was better than a normal turnout.

With roughly 350 cases still needing to be indicted, Darragh also resumed grand jury sessions March 10, with the intention to have one session every remaining Wednesday in March. A new grand jury term will begin in April.

“Those will continue to increase, but by meeting once a week … we are likely to catch up within a few months,” Darragh said.

One change in the backlog was the move to release roughly 200 inmates in March as the court and Hall County Sheriff’s Office were attempting to manage the coronavirus inside the jail through reconsidering bond amounts.

Darragh said they have had similar events on a yearly basis to see if a modification is necessary.

“The last time we had one was at the very beginning of the COVID crisis, where we had a more thorough review,” Darragh said, adding that the COVID pandemic made that review more intense.

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A grand jury room is set up for public viewing of trials Wednesday, March 10, 2021, inside the Hall County Courthouse as a COVID-19 safety precaution. - photo by Scott Rogers

Though these reviews will continue in the future, Darragh said they never want to “throw out the baby with the bath water.”

“Those who are most dangerous should remain incarcerated if they remain a danger to others in the community pending trial,” Darragh said.

The district attorney said there is a “better opportunity to give more consideration” on crimes concerning property instead of crimes against people

For the first trial March 10, Stephenson said they were able to bring in the panel of jurors and use social distance across three rooms.

“That, going forward, won’t be possible because of the limitations of courtroom space, but for this first one, we reserved the whole first floor and made it possible to bring all of them at once at 8:30 this morning,” he said.

The new COVID safety protocols for the trial included moving the jury out of the jury box and into the gallery sitting 6 feet apart. Plexiglass now surrounds the jury box so that a witness can testify from there without wearing a mask.

A livestream of the trial was shown on a large screen in the grand jury room on the courthouse’s third floor, which was intended for press and others wishing to watch the trial.

When the trial began with the attorneys’ opening statements around 4 p.m., the only people in attendance in the trial viewing room were two representatives from The Times and a Hall County Sheriff’s Office deputy.

It was difficult to hear the attorneys at times when they were not aided by a microphone.
Because of the social distancing guidelines, attorneys were only able to question 20 jurors at a time instead of 40 at once.

“The most notable difference was the wearing of masks,” Stephenson said. “Face coverings after a few minutes, let alone a few hours, can become uncomfortable, but the jurors were incredibly cooperative and many very appreciative of the steps taken to protect health and safety.”

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