Georgia judges ask for help from jurors with massive backlog of cases

As Georgia’s courts continue to play catchup from the suspension of jury trials due to coronavirus, people presumed innocent are sitting behind bars as they await a trial.

"We’ve gone essentially a year, a little over a year without jury trials. That’s a lot," said Georgia’s Chief Justice Harold Melton.

The Supreme Court of Georgia ordered a halt to jury trials last March at the onset of the pandemic. While the halt was lifted a few weeks ago, some jurors have been reluctant to show up.

Under Melton’s latest declaration of a statewide judicial emergency, judicial officials in every county are tasked with coming up with safety precautions for their courts.

In Fulton County, Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney said his county’s cases alone are seriously jammed up.

"We have hundreds of defendants who are at the county jail away who have now been waiting an extra year for their jury trial."

While deadlines for speedy trials remain suspended under the chief justice’s declaration, statutory deadlines for when criminal defendants behind bars must have their cases heard will resume on May 14.

McBurney said he understands the health concerns, but he is confident his courtrooms are safe for jurors.

"The new air handling equipment, social distancing requirements," McBurney said. "Everyone wears [a mask] 24/7 during the trial."

He also believes a key part of lessening the backlog increasing amount of cases they are trying at once.  

"The way it gets resolved is you get twelve members of the community in the courtroom," McBurney said. "We’re starting that backup, we need to find a way to do more than one trial at a time. Right now, we can only do one, we will not dig ourselves out of the backlog at that rate."

Part of that, Melton said, is having people willing and able to step up for jury duty. He thinks at this rate, the backlog of jury trials will last until at least 2023.

"We need to think about what makes our country our country," Chief Justice Melton said. "One of the key factors is a right to our liberty interests being decided by a jury of our peers. And that does not take a break during a pandemic."

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