Judicial emergency order extended another month in Ga.

This Jan. 14, 2013 file photo shows a gavel sitting on a desk inside the Court of Appeals at...
This Jan. 14, 2013 file photo shows a gavel sitting on a desk inside the Court of Appeals at the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center in Denver. The coronavirus pandemic has crippled the U.S. legal system, creating constitutional dilemmas as the accused miss their days in court. Judges from California to Maine have postponed trials and nearly all in-person hearings to keep crowds from packing courthouses. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)
Published: Jun. 17, 2020 at 12:47 PM CDT
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June 15 was supposed to be the end of the judicial emergency in Georgia that halted jury trials and grand juries over concerns of COVID-19. That is until the Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice extended the order another month, now in effect into mid-July.

Chatham Superior Court Chief Judge Penny Haas Freesemann said they know there’s a tsunami of cases coming down the pipeline when the courts can fully reopen. So, she detailed what the focus is right now on the superior court side, and how they’re achieving it.

“We are reinventing the court system,” Judge Freesemann said.

And it’s no small task. Over the last three months, Judge Freesemann said they’ve only been able to do virtual hearings, using a program called WebEx.

“And we have started with doing on the criminal side of things, we’re going to be doing negotiated guilty pleas with incarcerated defendants at the moment,” Judge Freesemann said.

One goal for the courts since COVID-19 spread into Chatham County is keeping the jail population down, which as of this morning is down to just over 1,200 inmates. That’s about 600 less than the population three months ago, according to Judge Freesemann.

While virtual hearings are a new, effective, and cost-saving way to move certain cases through the judicial system, Judge Freesemann acknowledges there are sometimes no substitutions for in-person jury trials.

“There are sometimes when you’ve just got to, particularly in a criminal case for a defendant to be able to really confront the witnesses, they’ll need to do it in person. But a lot of things like this, you bet, we’re going to be doing it. I don’t think we’re ever going to go back,” Judge Freesemann said.

Georgia’s Judicial COVID-19 task force is currently working on policies and procedures to allow for the safe return of jury and grand jury proceedings that should be available next month.

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