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.