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Lauderdale County jury trials still in limbo during coronavirus pandemic

Jury trials in both civil and criminal cases aren't happening.

Posted: Jul 20, 2020 5:18 PM
Updated: Jul 20, 2020 5:56 PM

It will be at least two months before juries can return to the courtroom and with coronavirus cases in Alabama rising, the wait for a jury trial could be longer.

Most hearings, pre-trials and other court hearings are now happening behind a screen over Zoom meetings. Lauderdale County Judge Gil Self told WAAY 31 he closed in-person court hearings a few days before the state mandated it in March. Right now, trials that call for a jury aren't happening.

"The real frustrating part is not being able to have jury trials. We're able to have other hearings with the judges who have been cooperative about having virtual hearings, and that's all worked really well," said Lauderdale County District Attorney Chris Connolly.

Connolly now has many staff meetings and hearings on his computer. He said he's split his staff up so not everyone is in the office at the same time. Connolly said about 90% of criminal cases can be handled out of court, but victims' families and defendants who want a jury trial can't have one right now.

"You've got victims whose loved ones have been murdered. You've got child victims that have had horrible things done to. You can't get those people to justice and so that's very frustrating for us, but more importantly for the families and victims of those types of crimes," said Connolly.

Attorney Tommy James says he's also dealing with hurdles in civil court. He represents victims of Daniel and Jenise Spurgeon in a civil case against the former foster couple and DHR. James said victims across the board are being re-victimized because of the slowed-down court process.

"The pandemic slowing things down, everybody is having to schedule around it and trying to get things done. It's affecting my clients," said James.

The Alabama Supreme Court said juries can start meeting for civil and criminal cases in September, but Judge Self said that timeline could change.

"It is slowing matters down. At this point, I don't think it's realistic to expect that we're allowed to summons a jury pool Sept. 15," said Self.

Some grand juries are convening in larger spaces. The Lauderdale County Courthouse is outfitted with temperature readers, hand sanitizer, extra cleaning staff, and everyone must wear a mask.

"I am responsible for the state employees in the building, county and other municipal courts, and I feel an enormous responsibility to protect them and their families," said Self. "Lauderdale County is having some issues with COVID right now and there is probably more reason to be closed now than when I closed the place, and I'm glad I have that discretion."

Self is allowing some in-person court hearings but those are on a case-by-case basis and only in extreme circumstances like domestic violence cases, cases involving children or murder cases.

"The virtual technology is good, but seeing the individual, the demeanor, the behavior, how they react to questions, their body language can be very telling, so there are certain cases I can't risk not being conducted in person," said Self.

Self said he is doubtful jury trials will start back in September, but if they do, he plans to have a bigger area for potential jurors to be struck on a case. During a normal jury selection, dozens of people who get summons in the mail show up.

Self said he's not sure when he will allow full-time, in-person hearings again. He said he's going to keep watching the virus to make that determination.

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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 100801

Reported Deaths: 1814
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson13366246
Mobile10581212
Montgomery6825151
Madison546934
Tuscaloosa426979
Unassigned392566
Baldwin367029
Shelby333437
Marshall319438
Lee270847
Morgan241819
Etowah218034
DeKalb183414
Calhoun181918
Elmore176039
Walker154465
Houston142813
Russell13892
St. Clair136320
Limestone135913
Dallas133624
Franklin129722
Cullman123012
Colbert121517
Lauderdale119020
Autauga116222
Escambia108817
Talladega105414
Jackson10264
Tallapoosa87579
Chambers84738
Dale84329
Clarke82610
Chilton8189
Blount8165
Butler77036
Coffee7656
Covington74021
Pike7137
Marion58226
Barbour5796
Lowndes57124
Marengo56616
Hale48526
Bullock48111
Winston45711
Perry4454
Bibb4445
Washington44412
Wilcox43410
Monroe4236
Pickens4089
Randolph40211
Conecuh39310
Sumter36618
Lawrence3542
Macon33914
Crenshaw3326
Choctaw28912
Cherokee2768
Clay2675
Geneva2652
Henry2643
Greene25211
Lamar2302
Fayette2235
Cleburne1291
Coosa1053
Out of AL00

Tennessee Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 124915

Reported Deaths: 1271
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Shelby23625314
Davidson20865219
Rutherford662955
Hamilton631555
Knox475040
Williamson360725
Sumner347373
Unassigned31173
Out of TN295216
Wilson233923
Bradley199115
Montgomery198614
Sevier19029
Putnam180018
Trousdale15836
Robertson157820
Hamblen142016
Blount132412
Washington12912
Maury12847
Tipton121710
Madison118920
Sullivan104815
Hardeman94218
Bedford93011
Macon86713
Lake7940
Loudon7543
Gibson7357
Bledsoe7162
Dickson7052
Fayette7048
Anderson6986
Dyer6688
Henderson6133
Cheatham6018
Obion5884
Jefferson5874
Lawrence5847
McMinn55920
Coffee5583
Rhea5442
Warren5404
Carter5326
Lauderdale5229
Haywood5107
Greene5049
Roane4882
Hawkins4859
Cocke4824
Weakley4824
Hardin4798
Cumberland4636
Smith4584
Monroe4519
McNairy3886
Giles38713
DeKalb3662
Franklin3384
Carroll3303
Lincoln3151
Marshall3054
Henry2990
White2945
Johnson2880
Claiborne2770
Crockett2745
Hickman2720
Campbell2541
Wayne2292
Marion2285
Chester2252
Decatur2153
Polk2133
Overton2091
Grainger2040
Unicoi1680
Union1620
Benton1581
Cannon1540
Jackson1301
Humphreys1293
Morgan1271
Scott1241
Grundy1182
Sequatchie1131
Meigs1080
Fentress960
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Stewart790
Clay790
Lewis741
Houston610
Moore600
Pickett391
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