JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Over the past couple of weeks, First Coast News has reported on the surge of COVID-19 cases impacting the local criminal justice community.
In one of those cases – defense attorney Nicole Jamieson continued fighting for her clients even during the fight for her life.
A month after the diagnosis of her breakthrough case, long COVID symptoms are still affecting Jamieson, who’s working hard on her cases while at home on oxygen.
“It almost took me out," she explained. “I was then diagnosed with bilateral pneumonia, which I still have. I'm having weekly chest x-rays because I am immune-compromised.”
Due to her underlying medical condition, Jamieson says she was one of the first to receive the vaccine and always made sure to wear a mask when she did have to be in public – including inside the local jails and courthouses.
“In the face of these evolving and dangerous circumstances, I would hope that it would warrant some kind of equally drastic measure to protect everybody," she said.
Fourth Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Mark Mahon says they have worked hard to keep the courthouses in Duval, Clay and Nassau counties safe with COVID-19 precautions like a reinstated mask mandate, testing of inmates and health screenings.
He believes, with these measures in place, it’s more efficient to keep criminal processes face to face.
“Criminal is more of an in-person experience, and it's more beneficial to resolve those cases," Mahon explained. "But if there's someone that has a concern about coming into the courthouse, whatever that might be, the judges are granting their motions and they're allowed to be able to appear by zoom.”
In March of 2020, the Florida Supreme Court suspended speedy trial procedures in response to the pandemic. Mahon says this has caused some backup in the system.
"There have been people sitting in the jails for long periods of time. And so we've got a real a real balancing act with making sure that we get those cases resolved and that those people have their day in court," he said.
On the other hand, Jamieson believes a more uniform approach of moving all court hearings to zoom would be more efficient, at least until COVID-19 cases in the community go down.
She says the Fourth Circuit judges have been very accommodating to her since her illness, but even with the recent administrative order, specifying a particular process, it isn’t a simple process to get the zoom option approved for a hearing.
“I think I had 18 cases on the calendar this week. So, I had to file an individual motion requesting permission to appear electronically in each of those cases," Jamieson said. "Well, that's three and a half hours I could have spent actually working on the substance of a case, working towards resolving a case.“
Other criminal defense attorneys also tell First Coast News they have had their motions to appear via zoom denied. Chief Judge Mahon says he is not aware of any denied motions.
"I think we all have a common objective, which is to ensure that due process is protected and that clients are advocated for... and at the same time cases move through the system in an efficient way," Jamieson explained. "And so, we have to come together I think as a legal community and make some decisions about what's the best way to do that while also ensuring the safety of our legal community is protected."