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Jury trials to start back in Shelby County

How do court officials tackle the mountain of backlogged cases?
Updated: Jun. 6, 2021 at 9:29 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The morning of June 7 will bring some much-needed movement to the wheels of justice in Shelby County.

Three jury trials will be held, the first since jury trials were brought to a halt in March of 2020 due to fears of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ll be back in the business of trying cases to the juries,” said District Attorney General, Amy Weirich.

Weirich told WMC that the cases on Monday will feature of murder first-degree trial in Court Division 1, a murder second-degree trial in Division 5, and a vandalism trial in Division 6.

Cases will be back in the traditional courtrooms, which were originally too small to hold jury trials for not being able to accommodate six feet of social distancing.

With updated CDC guidance, three feet of social distancing can be accommodated. Masks are required for the time being.

“It’s going to take us a while to catch up,” Weirich added, referring to the backlog of cases that have built up since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In late April, WMC was told the backlog numbered around 450, meaning it could take years to bring the numbers down.

“We typically try anywhere from, you know, 150 or so jury trials a year, so if you just go with that traditional figure, we are woefully behind,” Weirich said.

When asked, Weirich did not have an exact number on the current number in the backlog, saying processes among different judges makes finding a figure a slippery slope to navigate.

“You’ve got judges who, given the uncertainty during COVID, were not resetting cases for trial,” Weirich said. “They were just showing them ‘set for report.’ While a defendant may have an intention of setting a case for trial or asking for a jury trial, there’s no way to calculate that or count it.”

The DAG says the growing number of violent crime in Memphis hasn’t helped with the building backlog.

Priority of cases is being given to the most severe, followed by cases that have gone the longest without a trial date, leaving the more minor cases to the bottom of the queue.

“Not only do we have the backlog of those individuals who haven’t been able to have a jury trial; we’ve got a backlog of those individuals who are out on bond whose cases have just been continued and continued and rolled and rolled,” Weirich said.

While the timeline of bringing backlog numbers down is a hard pill to swallow, Weirich, looking at the glass half full, is glad that at least trials by jury are being held in Shelby County again.

She said “It is slow, but we will get there.”

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