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What Hall court says it needs to catch up on backlog of trials due to pandemic
Courtrooms in Hall County Superior Court, pictured in September 2020. - photo by Scott Rogers

With the prospect of resuming criminal jury trials in 2021, Hall County’s court administration made a $600,000 request Monday, Nov. 9, to the county’s board of commissioners to revamp its technology for hearings. 

In Superior Court, court administrator Jason Stephenson said they have closed out roughly 1,400 fewer cases compared to this time last year. 

Through the first three quarters of 2019, Hall County Superior Court had closed out roughly 3,300 cases. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the court this year has only been able to close roughly 1,900 cases, Stephenson said. 

This number will only continue to grow with grand jury resuming this week. 

"We're down in disposing of cases about 40% ... which means we've just got a lot of work in front of us for January,” Stephenson said. 

Northeastern Judicial Circuit Public Defender Brad Morris said they have been working through their caseloads while trying to do some things virtually. Nearly 200 inmates were released from the Hall County Jail in March through pre-trial bond discussions. 

"We have a bunch of cases still on the calendar,” Morris said. “Nothing has been indicted for a good while, so there are a lot of cases that are out there. I think the courts are very cognizant of ... safety concerns for the courthouse." 

The request involves more than $466,000 for equipment including cameras, TVs, microphones and other technology to upgrade the streaming and audio/visual aspects of the courtroom. There is another $119,000 for installation and $14,000 in shipping and handling. 

The technology would be for five Superior Court courtrooms and three State Court courtrooms. 

If the request goes through, the vendor will install the equipment in two of the eight courtrooms before the end of the year. Stephenson said the hope would be for two felony trials per week on some weeks starting in early 2021. 

The rest of the courtrooms would get the equipment in early spring. 

Stephenson said this capital request was submitted last year but postponed due to the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Though these items are coming at a time when the court is trying to resume trials safely, they will have utility post-pandemic particularly for video teleconferencing.  

While the court has been able to take care of some essential hearings virtually, constitutional protections for defendants don’t allow for them to be fully virtual. 

"Criminal trials really can't happen virtually,” Stephenson said. “There's a confrontation clause and constitutional issues that protect and preserve the right to a fair and speedy trial that would include a defendant's right to view the accuser." 

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Wearing a mask due to the pandemic, Caitlyn Pye enters Hall County Juvenile Court Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, for her sentencing hearing. Pye, 17, is accused in a foiled November 2019 knife attack plot against the congregation of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Gainesville. - photo by Scott Rogers

Court officials have held that the right to confront one’s accuser involves in-person testimony that can be seen and heard. 

"It's sort of a difficult proposition when you're weighing the concept of constitutional requirements against public health requirements," Morris said. 

The COVID-19 jury committee was created earlier this year to establish plans on how to resume trials, including installation of Plexiglass around the witness stand and spreading out members of the jury. 

The public will have to watch a livestream in another room, which this request will facilitate. 

Stephenson said these items will also “vastly improve” the court’s ability to do video teleconferencing for certain hearings. 

"One of the things that we are still struggling some with is how to do hybrid hearings where some folks are in the courtroom and some folks are appearing by Zoom or from their home,” Stephenson said. “It gets tricky because having multiple devices in the room and making sure that people at home can see everybody in the courtroom." 

With this technology, Stephenson said they would be able to install multiple cameras so people participating in the hearing from outside of the courtroom can view everyone inside the courtroom. 

The court’s pilot trial will be a competency case for Talon Lowery, who was accused of murder in November 2017. Competency concerns a defendant’s ability to assist in his/her own defense. 

Stephenson said the case will involve largely medical testimony, and court officials will use the trial as a pilot case to tweak any social distancing guidelines. 

"It's not an easy case to decide, but it's a simpler case in terms of evidence presentation," he said. 

The request was moved to the consent agenda for the board of commissioners' meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 12.