Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold D. Melton said he plans to sign an order Saturday, Oct. 10, allowing local courts to resume jury trials. In Hall County, the only case set for a jury is a competency trial for a Sautee man accused in a 2017 murder.
“From the beginning of this emergency – and even earlier – we have been preparing for this day,” Melton said in a statement Wednesday, Oct. 7. “We have put into place rigorous safety protocols for grand jury proceedings and jury trials because we understand that the public must have confidence to come and serve on juries. It is paramount to all our judges that our citizens realize that their safety has been thoroughly considered.”
Court administrator Jason Stephenson said the court will not set a calendar until the Georgia Supreme Court’s order. He said they expect to begin sending jury summons next week for late November.
Melton said statutory deadlines for indictments and jury trials will remain suspended due to the time it will take to summon jurors and move cases from grand jury to trial.
“At the beginning of this emergency, we all hoped, and maybe even assumed, that this pandemic would come to a relatively quick end,” Melton said. “The right to a trial by a jury of our fellow citizens, in both civil and criminal cases, is fundamental to the American justice system. It is written into our Constitution. To delay that process has made a difficult time more difficult for everybody involved in our justice system – litigants, victims, witnesses, lawyers, judges, and jurors. We must move forward, and I am confident that due to the hard work of so many judges, lawyers, and support staff, we are ready to do so while protecting the safety of all who participate through strict rules and adherence to public safety guidelines.”
Northeastern Judicial Circuit District Attorney Lee Darragh said so far the only thing scheduled is a Nov. 30 competency trial for Talon Lowery.
Lowery was charged in a Nov. 6, 2017, murder indictment of shooting Bryan Ramirez, 18, four days earlier at the Texaco station on Cleveland Highway.
A defendant is deemed competent if he “understands the trial process and whether he can cooperate with his attorney,” Darragh said.
Stakeholders began brainstorming in September on how to resume court proceedings safely.
Proposed measures include plexiglass shields around the witness stand, seating participants in different rooms and using Zoom or closed-circuit television to allow for social distancing.