GAINESVILLE – The right to a fair and speedy trial will cost Hall County an additional $600,000 if a purchase request is approved by the Hall County Commission Thursday evening.
Hall County Court Administrator Jason Stephenson told commissioners at their work session Monday afternoon, “We’re working to figure out the logistical nightmare of how to do court with social distancing guidelines.”
Stephenson says since March’s COVID-19-related shutdown, only essential cases are going to trial, and his team has had to get creative in order to piece together the needed technology to hold a trial.
“Some of the things that we’re doing,” Stephenson began, “we’re doing kind of makeshift, in-house, like Zoom. We’re doing these virtual hearings by Zoom.”
“So what we’ve done is we’ve set up a TV on a cart, and we’re wheeling carts around to the different court rooms to do it,” he continued.
The tediousness of that system has meant only essential cases have been going to trial, and the backlog of other cases waiting to be heard is mounting quickly.
“Fifteen hundred cases, that’s civil and criminal,” Stephenson replied when asked how far behind the county was in holding trials. “Most criminal cases don’t close until they get to jury trial; and with jury trials suspended since March…we’re going to have a significant backlog in Superior Court to dig out of next year.”
Stephenson said State Court, where misdemeanor offenses are tried, is not as far behind as Superior Court, where felonies are adjudicated. “Those felony trials just don’t settle until we call them to trial. We’re going to have a lot of work in front of us in January.
If the purchasing request is approved by commissioners Thursday evening, Stephenson says all Hall County court rooms will be upgraded to allow for virtual and in-person jury trials. “In order to facilitate jury trial in this environment we’re going to have to do some things like live-streaming and video teleconferencing. We’re going to have to beef up our audio system in order to do that.”
“The Supreme Court gave us the green light in October to go ahead and proceed with jury trials. We’ve assembled a committee of about twenty stakeholders that have put together a plan for how to do that safely.”
“This would start with two court rooms immediately this year, before the end of the calendar year; that would allow us to be back full-force, as much as we can be, in January, and would conclude with the other six court rooms in the spring.” Stephenson said.
In addition, Stephenson said, installation of the new equipment would solve several other related issues, including meeting ADA standards for hearing impaired participants, and enhancing evidence presentation, allowing jurors a closer look at evidence pertaining to the case.
“It’s made some things much more convenient: we’re doing a lot fewer transports from the jail and witnesses that are driving a lot…can appear virtually,” Stephenson explained.
“We think these virtual hearings are here to stay; we’ve learned a lot from doing them over the last eight months.”