MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - No jury trials have been held in Shelby County since early last year. There are constitutional concerns that come with delaying justice for victims and the accused, but court officials also worry about the potential make up and impact of juries moving forward.
The Tennessee Supreme Court stopped jury trials statewide last March, saying it was too risky to have the dozens of people needed for a jury trial in one courtroom during the pandemic.
Trials were allowed to resume last July in courtrooms that could socially distance, but that couldn’t happen in Shelby County’s small courtrooms.
Then, jury trials were again shut down statewide in November as the number of COVID-19 cases began to rise.
There are concerns over what the delay will mean going forward.
“There will be guilty people who go free and there will be innocent people who get convicted,” said Mike Working, president of the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “There will be a massive backlog in cases. I think it will be harder for prosecutors and defense attorneys to do their job and I think that will mean more injustice down the road.”
Working and his clients have been waiting nearly a year for trials to resume. Some are waiting behind bars at the Shelby County jail.
“There are defendants waiting for their day in court. How many victims and victims’ families, would you say, are waiting for their day in court?” The Investigators asked District Attorney General Amy Weirich.
“Hundreds if not thousands. We have not had a jury trial since February of last year. We typically try somewhere between 120 and 200 jury trials a year,” said Weirich.
Weirich, agreeing with Working, says the backlog of cases will take years to process.
“We’re going to do the best we can here in this office to work around the clock if that’s what it takes. But, as we tell victims’ families, there’s a lot to this that’s beyond our control,” said Weirich. “We’ve got to have a defense attorney that’s ready to come to trial, we’ve got to have witnesses, and we’ve got to have members of the community willing to step up, raise their hand and serve on jury duty.”
There are specific concerns over who is willing and able to serve on jury duty.
For example, Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Chris Craft points out that the Supreme Court trial ban does allow exceptions but no one in his courtroom has asked for one.
“None of them want it,” said Craft. “Attorneys on both sides are worried we won’t get a fair representation to pick the jury from. None of them want to try a case when we have a skewed jury pool because of the virus. Only professionals who can work from home would be available for jury duty under the circumstances.”
According to Craft, single moms won’t be able to serve if they have children virtually learning and those are out of work will be looking for employment.
Craft also believes African-Americans and Latinx persons, who are more likely to be affected by COVID-19, may not feel comfortable serving on jury duty.
“Based on that, if you were to look at who you think a jury pool would be right now, what do you think we’d see?” asked The Investigators.
“We would see disproportionately more white men this time than any other time in Shelby County,” he said.
To solve that problem, Working believes the jury commission should select a jury pool from the more than 78,000 Shelby County residents who have had and recovered from COVID-19.
“We have the registry. Our Health Department has a list of the thousands of people who’ve tested positive in this county,” said Working.
“Because we don’t know how long those antibodies last and how effective they are do you think that it is still foolproof that jurors won’t contract the virus should they be called to their Constitutional duty?” asked The Investigators.
“There are still ways to practice social distancing just not in the courtrooms that exist,” said Working.
To tackle that issue, four courtrooms under construction pre-pandemic are now being prepared to hold jury trials when the ban expires.
The vision is to set up chairs for jurors and keep them socially distant at the front of the room while the judge, witnesses and defendant remain at the front of the room.
Judge John Campbell is in charge of the project and admits while the rooms will be ready in March he’s unsure, as are most others, when jury trials will begin again.
“We obviously have to try cases,” said Campbell. “We have people in jail, have a right to trial and we have to give them that trial. That’s a Constitutional right that they have.”
Campbell says when trials resume the county won’t need a list of infected persons to get a jury.
He says when the Supreme Court ban was lifted for five months last year, Shelby County was able to present cases in front of a grand jury.
“We were running three grand juries a week. We had no trouble selecting our grand jurors,” he said. “They were as diverse as we’ve ever had as our jurors usually are. There was no difference and they served without issue and served well.”
With the rooms almost ready for use, Weirich said the next step will be choosing which cases go to trial first.
“To me, what makes sense is you pick the ones that have been in jail the longest and are charged with the most serious offenses,” said Weirich.
For now, those trials are set to begin again in April but for those languishing in jail waiting for their day in court, or the victims waiting for answers, those wheels of justice remain frozen in place.