The Coweta Judicial Circuit is developing plans for how to resume grand jury proceedings with the sixth extension of the statewide judicial emergency over the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chief Justice Harold Melton on Thursday extended the judicial emergency order until Oct. 10, but also ordered that grand jury proceedings resume. Under Meton’s order, however, jury trials remain prohibited.
In his order, Melton noted that grand jury proceedings and jury trials have been almost entirely prohibited since March 14, when he first declared a judicial emergency, because they require the assembly of larger numbers of people.
In his latest order, he said this “broad prohibition” cannot continue even while the pandemic does, “because our judicial system, and the criminal justice system in particular, must have some capacity to resolve cases by indictment and trial.”
The Judicial COVID-19 Task Force has been focusing its work on how these proceedings can be safely conducted, according to Melton, and his newest extension authorizes the Chief Judge of each county or circuit superior court, with the consultation of the District Attorney, to resume grand jury proceedings as local conditions allow.
Being able to safely conduct grand jury proceedings, Melton said, “will provide experience useful in conducting safe jury trials.”
Actual grand jury hearings, and eventually jury trials, should not begin until at least one month after they are authorized, according to Melton, because of the time required to summon potential jurors.
Carroll County Superior Court Judge John Simpson told the Times-Georgian on Monday that the five counties in the Coweta Circuit will form committees to develop plans for how to proceed safely.
Grand jury proceeding plans will be developed first, according to Simpson, and plans for conducting jury trials will follow. Simpson said that there are 30 days for the plan to be submitted to the Chief Justice, so they are working aggressively to formulate the plan in order to meet that deadline.
“I’ll be working with the Clerk, the District Attorney, the Public Defender, the other judges, and some other individuals, and going through it with them,” said Simpson.
Simpson added that they are looking at the inclusion of technology, mentioning the possibility of streams for audiences to watch, and other virtual options.
The courtrooms could also see some modifications in how everyone is seated, in order to ensure social distancing, including spacing the jury into areas where spectators normally sit.
Individuals in the grand jury normally meet in a space in the District Attorney’s Office, however that space is too small for social distancing, so modifications need to be developed to ensure jurors’ safety.
Everyone who enters the courthouse has been required to wear a mask, and that will continue. Masks will be strictly enforced, including during any future trials that may occur.
“Our procedures will be changed a lot from standard operating procedures,” said Simpson.