Speedy trial? Not so fast. Georgia’s considering longer deadlines.Fulton County Courthouse. Credit: Kelly Jordan
By Maggie Lee
Georgia’s courts have halted jury trials because nobody needs to be crowded into a jury room during a pandemic. And though some courts have resorted to teleconferences for some things, Lady Justice is as hampered as anyone else by pandemic protocol.
The Georgia Legislature is working on how to get through courts’ backlogs once it’s safe to reopen.
Justice delayed is justice denied, and that goes for a defendant who’s sitting in custody or a victim waiting for her case to be resolved, said Pete Skandalakis, the leader of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia.
“Witnesses disappear, witnesses die,” Skandalakis said. “I’ve even had victims tell me at times if they’ve had to wait too long for their case, they’d just as soon not show up to court.”
And sure, a dead witness could help a defense case, but plenty of defendants, who may be sitting in jail during a pandemic, have good reason to demand a speedy trial and get it over with.
The Georgia Legislature started hearings Monday on Senate Bill 163, which would let Georgia’s top judges lengthen their circuits’ “speedy trial” deadlines. It varies throughout the state, but in some circuits like Atlanta, the speedy trial requirement is normally little as four months.
“It’s viewed this way,” said bill sponsor state Sen. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough, “We have to have some protection like this or we’re going to have to let people out and not try cases.”
That is, as courts more fully re-open, he expects an avalanche of speedy trial demands that might overwhelm some judicial circuits.
Chief Judge Christopher Brasher of the Atlanta Judicial Circuit came to the Georgia Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday and spoke in favor of the bill.
“The reality is that if we don’t have relief regarding the speedy trials, we’re going to end up trying three-month-old cases before a three-year-old case because there will be [speedy trial] demands filed in those cases, and not in the older ones because … someone can’t file a demand,” Brasher said.
But Jill Travis of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said her group is very concerned about this bill.
“Public health orders are designed to slow a pandemic, not to give the government an advantage in criminal trials,” Travis told the committee.
She talked about reasons why somebody might file a speedy trial demand: because they’re innocent, stuck in jail, or want to light a fire under some prosecutor to investigate “bad facts.”
Travis said her group understands that there will have to be some kind of modification of the rules to deal with the COVID-19 backlog, but she called SB 163 too broad. She asked for changes like a more specific description of how judges could rearrange calendars and of the oversight powers of the state supreme court’s chief justice.
She also said she’d like to see the numbers of speedy trial demands to see if the predicted avalanche is as bad as some fear it will be. And if it’s not so bad, why extend deadlines?
Meanwhile, on the prosecution side, Skandalakis said he thinks DAs are “changing the manner in which they evaluate cases.”
They’re looking at their own socially-distanced, part-virtual workplaces and figuring out how much work they can actually handle. And it’s probably less than before COVID-19.
Flint Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Brian Amero leveled with the committee: “Judges over the course of this pandemic have been doing everything that they can do to release everyone that is not a threat to the community,” Amero said. “We spend innumerable hours, constantly vigilant in our evaluation of these cases as bond hearings. And what we’re trying to do is make sure that only the people in jail are the people who are a clear threat to the community.”
Some kind of path to re-opening jury trials could be part of an upcoming order from the state’s top judge, Supreme Court of Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton, who is working on updates to his last judicial emergency order. But he told a group of other judges meeting as the Judicial Council of Georgia twice this month that re-opening jury trials depends on COVID-19 continuing to decline, as well as a greater understanding about the vaccine process and the virus variants.
As for SB 163, it may be taken up at the next Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, which is scheduled for Wednesday.
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Judicial Council of Georgia meetings via YouTube
Georgia Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Feb. 22