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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

Cases: 530011

Reported Deaths: 10946
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson763591519
Mobile40875804
Madison34676503
Tuscaloosa25717451
Montgomery24308585
Shelby23389248
Baldwin21093307
Lee15844169
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Morgan14281279
Etowah13813353
Marshall12203222
Houston10553280
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St. Clair9634239
Lauderdale9413241
DeKalb8821185
Talladega8210175
Walker7222277
Autauga6914108
Jackson6803111
Blount6645136
Colbert6291134
Coffee5503118
Dale4826111
Russell440038
Chilton4263111
Franklin425482
Covington4120117
Tallapoosa4006152
Escambia393276
Chambers3559123
Dallas3544151
Clarke350861
Marion3111100
Pike310177
Lawrence299898
Winston273772
Bibb260463
Marengo249164
Geneva248777
Pickens233760
Barbour230757
Hale222577
Butler215869
Fayette212062
Henry188744
Cherokee184345
Randolph179941
Monroe177040
Washington167039
Macon158650
Clay155956
Crenshaw151957
Cleburne148741
Lamar141834
Lowndes138553
Wilcox127029
Bullock123041
Conecuh110129
Perry107526
Coosa107128
Sumter104332
Greene92334
Choctaw60424
Out of AL00
Unassigned00

Tennessee Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 852072

Reported Deaths: 12245
CountyCasesDeaths
Shelby955251616
Davidson89317933
Knox50606634
Hamilton44219493
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Williamson27986217
Sumner23978349
Montgomery20232225
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Bradley15010149
Washington14582245
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Hamblen8604173
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Henderson378876
White363270
Macon361778
Carroll361483
Hardin357167
Hardeman351864
Lauderdale318544
Henry317976
Claiborne317773
Marion312547
Scott311645
Overton300861
Wayne296134
Hickman283846
McNairy281654
DeKalb279554
Smith277439
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