jury trials

Jury trials could resume as early as March under an order released last week by Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton.

Melton last week extended for the 11th time the statewide judicial emergency he first issued March 14, 2020 in response to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic.

State law allows the Chief Justice to declare such an emergency for 30 day periods.

However, last week’s order signals jury trials could resume next month.

Chief Justice Melton noted “the surge in COVID-19 cases that led to the suspension of jury trials appears now to be declining.”

The Chief Justice indicated the next order, to be issued March 9, will allow jury trials to resume.

“Assuming that conditions generally continue to improve, it is anticipated that the next extension order ... will authorize superior and state courts, in their discretion, to resume jury trials as local conditions allow,” the Chief Justice wrote.

Chief Judge Dwayne Gillis, of the Waycross Judicial Circuit, said this week he anticipates “a little lag time” before trials can resume locally.

“We are planning for the resumption of trials, but we have to work out all the details and make sure we can social distance potential jurors,” he said.

Gillis said he anticipates jury trials may resume locally by May at the earliest.

“We have to take a look at the cases pending in all six counties, coordinate with the district attorney and defense attorney, coordinate witnesses and summon potential jurors.”

Gillis said all plans are subject to change depending on the prevalence of the virus in the circuit.

The initial emergency was declared in March 2020 as coronavirus cases first began to spread in the area.

Since that time, only essential court services like emergency matters and protective orders, have been conducted.

The moratorium on grand jury proceedings was lifted in September and an additional revision in October allowed local courts to begin preparing for the resumption of legal proceedings including jury trials as soon as it was deemed safe to do so.

After briefly reopening, the courts suspended trials again shortly before Christmas owing to a spike in COVID-19 cases throughout the Waycross Judicial Circuit.

The Chief Justice said he hopes the recent decline in the number of cases, along with the roll out of vaccines against the virus, will allow jury trials to resume next month.