By Joe Johnson
Trials and grand juries are set to resume in Athens-Clarke and Oconee Counties nearly a year after they were suspended due to the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.
In Athens, instead of within the close confines of the 206-year-old courthouse on East Washington Street, grand juries and jury trials are set to resume at the spacious Classic Center on North Thomas Street, which prior to the pandemic regularly hosted thousands for concerts, concerts, weddings and other large events.
Because of health concerns posed by the pandemic, Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harld Melton in March issued an emergency order that suspended all but the most essential courthouse functions.
As a result, there is now a backlog of hundreds of cases waiting to go before a grand jury and that are ready for trial.
After six extensions of the order, Melton in October issued a seventh order that stated grand juries and trials can resume.
Remote judicial proceedings will continue, but Melton's order allows the chief judge of each judicial circuit in Georgia to resume grand juries and trials at their discretion.
Chief Judge Eric Norris of the Western Judicial Circuit, which is comprised of Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties, subsequently formed a task force that included stakeholders from both counties to consider how to resume court proceedings safely and within the scope of guidance from both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Georgia Supreme Court.
“Considering the size of the courtrooms in Athens and the ability to assemble jurors, we scheduled a meeting with the Classic Center to consider utilizing space for jury trials,” Norris said. “The Classic Center provides large modular rooms that can be re-configured as necessary to accommodate a large crowd for jury assemblage and selection and then scaled down for a jury trial. In Oconee, we have a large courtroom that can accommodate a trial. However, the OC Civic Center was considered for jury assemblage and selection.”
According to the judge, factors in choosing the extra-judicial locations included the ability to summon more jurors than normal to ensure that there will be a sufficient number of qualified jurors for selection, consideration of social distancing and space to accommodate more jurors, ventilation systems and recycling of air, parking and space for jurors to gather for juror check in and cleaning capabilities.
“With all things considered, both alternate sites meet with best practices and can provide safe venues for trials,” Norris said. “We are focused on the fact that criminal trials must resume to protect the constitutional rights of defendants and for victims to have their case determined. We are also focused on the safety of our citizens and the absolute need for citizens to participate in the trial process.”
The judge said that criminal justice stakeholders have tentatively scheduled the use of the Classic Center and Civic Center from January to June, but that timeframe could be adjusted based on such factors as the availability of vaccines, community spread and overall community conditions.
“We also acknowledge that flexibility is a must and that we may alter the plan as needed,” Norris said. “Additionally, should the conditions warrant postponing trials, we will do that also."