More than 200 cases are ready and waiting to be presented to a Hall County grand jury, as prosecutors and defense attorneys are trying to figure out how to resume court safely during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Northeastern Judicial Circuit District Attorney Lee Darragh, who prosecutes cases in Hall and Dawson counties, said there were 315 cases as of Aug. 17 ready for grand jury overall, 244 of those being in Hall County.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that next year is going to be a very busy year,” assistant public defender Chris van Rossem said.
More serious charges — homicide, child molestation, burglary, aggravated assault — have to go to a grand jury, while some offenses — certain theft cases, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, etc. —can go through a formal accusation, according to Georgia law.
The accusation can be filed by the district attorney’s office to move the case forward to a potential trial.
Some cases have been closed out through pleas since the emergency judicial orders were signed in March out of coronavirus concerns.
Darragh said he would like to hold grand jury sessions as often as he can to catch up, though he and other court officials want to do so as safely as possible. He and other court stakeholders held a Zoom conference call Friday, Sept. 4, brainstorming on ways to resume these court functions.
Many cases a day can presented to a grand jury, but it would still take a while to catch up.
It would likely take a full day to present 20 cases, Darragh said, which would mean 12 full days likely spread out to cover all of the backlogged cases.
Before the COVID-19 outbreak, the prosecutor was able to present as many as 40 cases in a full day, but the restrictions during the relaunch will “slow things down significantly in presentation of the cases.”
“It basically involves the necessity to socially distance the witnesses, perhaps bringing them from one distant room to another, spreading them out to different rooms,” Darragh said. “It’s just the physical difficulty in getting that accomplished.”
Van Rossem said the caseloads have been manageable so far and doesn’t believe it will overwhelm the system’s resources.
“Through the spring and summer, I think we’ve been able to sort of limit the numbers from ballooning too much by working out some of the less serious cases or lower-level cases, which helps,” van Rossem said. “What we’re probably looking at is more of a backlog in cases involving serious allegations, where the only resolution is going to be a trial.”
After grand juries, Darragh and his office turn their eyes toward jury trials, which may not start until later this year or potentially early next year.
The jury had already been selected for the case of DeMarvin Bennett, an East Point man accused of killing Gainesville businessman Jack Hough in February 2019. The case was then postponed.
Assistant Public Defender Matt Leipold said he remembered polling members of the jury pool about their COVID-19 concerns, as schools and professional sports started to shut down. Few raised their hands back then, Leipold said.
Leipold said he expects the Bennett case will likely be one of the first to go.
“One of the issues that we’re concerned about … is we don’t want to start a trial and then there’s some sort of outbreak in the jury or somebody in the courtroom, and then you have to perhaps declare a mistrial and start over because of virus concerns,” he said.
Both sides are concerned about cases languishing before trial, as witnesses disappear and their recall fades with time.
Leipold mentioned bond conditions, such as electronic monitoring, curfews or drug screens, which normally last for months before trial.
“If this drags on, those could hang over people for a very long time,” he said.
Superior Court Judge Clint Bearden said there were several significant cases that he expected to close out this year.
Some of these cases, even before the COVID-19 circumstances, would take at least one to two weeks to finish, Bearden said.
Courts are venturing out into “somewhat uncharted territory,” Bearden said.
“I think it’s going to be most likely that you’ll see the first jury trials that resume be cases that perhaps are not those major cases, just because there is going to be some degree of necessity to see what works well and what may need to be changed before we have some of the most significant cases tried,” Bearden said.
These more significant and high-profile cases will likely be in 2021, “hopefully sooner than later, as I think everyone involved understands the great importance of having these cases tried before a jury as soon as it’s practicable and safe to do so,” Bearden said.
Other homicide cases and serious crimes will be given priority, Darragh said.
Leipold said the delays will likely not violate the defendant’s constitutional Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial because of the Georgia Supreme Court’s emergency judicial order, which allows for normal case deadlines to be suspended or tolled.
“In the case of the pandemic, neither the prosecution nor the defense is responsible,” Leipold said. “It’s a health issue that’s outside of our control.”
Typically, if a person files a statutory right to a speedy trial, that case becomes No. 1 on every judge’s calendar, Leipold said.