Order in the court

As jury trials resume, jurors will now be seated in the area that was once designated for public seating and spaced out six feet. Photos by Jay Phillips

By Asia Ashley

DeKalb prepares to resume jury trials

More than a year after postponing jury trials due to the coronavirus pandemic, DeKalb County courts are gearing up to resume trials in May.

Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton gave the thumbs up on March 9, issuing the 12th statewide judicial emergency order since the coronavirus pandemic struck Georgia in March of 2020, that allows jury trials to resume immediately if they can be done safely and according to a plan developed with input from local judicial officials.

Courts throughout the state have opened since Melton’s order, but jury trials were suspended because of the number of people required to be present at courthouses.

“The decision to open jury trials is different from opening private businesses,” Melton said during the State of the Judiciary address in mid-March. “Unlike when individuals choose whether to visit a store, or a gym, or a restaurant, when a citizen receives a jury summons, that’s not an invitation, it’s an order. We compel people to come to court…It has therefore been critical that when we resumed jury trials, we did it right – with the necessary safeguards in place.”

DeKalb County has a mock trial planned for April 19 ahead of the county’s felony jury trials, which are expected to begin in May. While the DeKalb court system did not provide an estimate of how many trials had been postponed due to the pandemic, Melton estimated that many courts have backlogs of trials that may take two or three years to move through the system in light of safety protocols and limitations.

DeKalb County Chief Judge of Superior Court Asha Jackson—who has collaborated with and led many of the court’s reshaping efforts through her roles on the Statewide Judicial Council, Council of Superior Court Judges, Statewide Judicial Taskforce and the county’s COVID-19 Task Force, and other positions—ensures the public that DeKalb’s courts are and will continue to be safe.

While some in-person hearings were held during the pandemic, new safeguards at DeKalb County Courthouse have included temperature checks at entry, masks worn at all times and social distancing. Courtroom capacity has been reduced and Plexiglas partitions have been installed in courtrooms. Limited public space will be available to view trials inside the courtroom and there will be areas to view trials via television.

An important feature to ensure the public’s safety is air ionization systems in each courtroom. The system is used in HVAC systems to clean and filter air.

“That investment that the county made is just an additional safety precaution that the judges have already done, and citizens should feel safe coming in the building,” LeNora Hawkins Ponzo, DeKalb County Superior Court administrator, said.

All courtrooms will not be used for jury trials; instead, one courtroom per floor will be used for trials each day. Jury members will sit in the area of the courtroom which pre-pandemic was used for public seating. Orange tape is placed on benches to designate at least 6 feet of spacing for social distancing where jury members will sit. Jurors will also use a vacant courtroom, rather than a conference room, for deliberation.

“We will have at least one courtroom available if [jurors] need the space,” said Hawkins Ponzo. “That’s a lot different from what we normally do.”

Other courtrooms can be used for virtual hearings.

Plexiglass dividers have been installed in courtrooms as a safety measure.

Jackson said much of the court’s enhanced safety equipment and technology was made possible through federal CARES Act funding.

“The courts were able to purchase upgraded software and technology to help make court operations more efficient as most employees worked remotely,” she said.

Upgraded technology helped make way for the court to double its clearance rate of cases. According to Jackson, 8,380 superior court cases were closed in 2019. The number of cases closed in 2020 amid the pandemic was 15,378. Jackson said that post pandemic in many cases, mostly civil, the option to conduct hearings virtually will continue.

Jackson estimates more than 80 percent of court employees will continue to work virtually over the next couple of months, and plans to slowly phase in employees’ return to the building will be announced at a future date. She encouraged the public to do their civic duty and participate as a juror if summoned.

“I think DeKalb is on the road to having a safe reopening. I think we’ve done a great job at ensuring that the cleaning and sanitation is done even if it’s not in-person. We still get the courtrooms cleaned and sanitized every day,” Hawkins Ponzo said.

Jurors will no longer sit in the jury box, pictured. Instead, jurors will be spaced among the public seating area in the court room.

Read the original story on TheChampionNewspaper.com.