JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — “The wheels of justice turn slowly, the adage goes, “but grind exceedingly fine.”
In the age of COVID-19, however, the wheels have ground to a virtual halt.
Since suspending most courthouse operations and all jury trials in March, the Fourth Judicial Circuit, which includes Clay, Nassau and Duval counties, has worked hard to adapt: Zoom hearings, courtroom plexiglass and a concerted effort to resolve cases without trials.
However, after months of trying to get back on track, local courts are back to square one. Chief Judge Mark Mahon has asked judges to operate as if they are again at Phase I operations: Courthouses closed except for essential functions, exceptions only with his approval.
That is a far cry from just a few weeks back, when judges were scheduling in-person pretrial hearings by the dozen and felony jury trials resumed.
Numbers alone expose the enormity of the challenge.
According to the Clerk of Courts, there are 4,150 pending felony cases in Duval County compared to 2,995 at this time last year.
That increase has occurred even as the State Attorney’s Office says it is continuing to settle, resolve and otherwise dispose of pending cases whenever possible.
As a result of the rising caseload, the jail population is also rising.
In June, after three months of efforts by law enforcement and criminal defense lawyers to effect the release of nonviolent inmates, the jail held 2,172 people, down from 3,010 in March. As of Tuesday that number is 2,591, up 20%.
COVID infections are down in jail, just 122 inmates are currently positive, according to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, compared to 451 in August. However, attorneys for at least two inmates told First Coast News their clients recently died of COVID-19. JSO confirmed two recent deaths but would not disclose the cause.
Since March, 343 jail employees tested positive for COVID-19. Some 20 courthouse bailiffs at the Duval County Courthouse have also been sidelined by the virus, despite the fact that the city has spent roughly $150,000 on safety measures, according to Mahon.
The courthouse did manage to seat a grand jury and held two successful criminal trials with out of custody defendants. However, last month, three other trials fell apart, after two defendants, a JSO employee and a juror showed symptoms.
In the past two weeks, the court moved from being on the verge of Phase 3, almost normal functioning, with very few remote operations to what is an all-but-official Phase 1. Mahon said he told judges last week to cease in-person operations unless there is a specific need, a move he said is in response to the disease’s resurgence in the community.
Perhaps the most stunning number: Of 400 summonses sent as Clay County tried to seat a grand jury last week, only 14 people showed up. Clerk of Court Tara Green said she was “disappointed” in the turnout but noted it may “serve as an indicator of the level of concern” about the virus.
Statement from the Clay County Clerk of Courts:
Since the onset of COVID restrictions (March 2020), our court system has not conducted an in-person trial involving a jury. There is a current Grand Jury in place (i.e., available to hear cases if needed). The goal Friday of last week was to seat a new Grand Jury to serve for the next six months. The process of doing so was viewed as our county’s first opportunity to summon citizens for service on a jury of any kind, since the court restrictions began.
400 citizens were mailed summons (pool based on list provided by the DMV)
Of the 400, 160 citizens’ excusals were granted for various reasons:
• COVID-19 options list (similar to CDC guidelines used for entrance screening)
• Other health related and/or age-related conditions
• Residency (no longer a Clay County resident)
• Mental capacity
• Summons returned in the mail (inaccurate address on file with DMV)
240 citizens remained in the pool as potential jurors.
14 appeared in court as directed/requested.
All were dismissed by the judge when it was determined a jury could not be seated.
We are waiting for new directions from our Chief Administrative Judge Don Lester on how he would like to proceed with new summons and when. Discussions are under way regarding how best to improve turnout. All recommended/required staffing, sanitizing, social distancing, and face mask requirements were in place last week and will be again when jury summons[es] are resent. Date TBD.
“We were disappointed in the turn-out, certainly. It does, however, serve as an indicator of the level of concern that may remain in our population. Our team will continue to partner with the judiciary and with county leadership to provide the best venue possible to conduct safe court proceedings. The right to a fair trial by a jury of our peers is the cornerstone of the US Constitution’s 6th Amendment. Every citizen should take their jury summons seriously and respond in good faith if no valid excuse applies.”
Tara S. Green