Jury trials resume in Chatham Co. for first time since pandemic began

Updated: Apr. 5, 2021 at 7:38 AM EDT
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - For the first time since last March, a criminal trial will be held at the Chatham County Courthouse.

Starting Monday, April 5, the trial involving a deadly shooting case from 2016 will begin.

It’s an important step for the community to move these cases through the judicial process. And even before the pandemic, there was a backlog of cases. So, now, with the trial process resuming, although not at the pre-pandemic pace just yet, the district attorney’s office will work toward chipping away at that caseload.

“It’s extraordinary, really, that we’re getting to this point already. We are so far ahead of so many jurisdictions, so many circuits. Our judges have just done a tremendous job, Chief Judge Freesemann’s leadership throughout the pandemic has just been absolutely extraordinary. And then DA Jones coming on board and really getting her hands around the issues that we needed to address in the district attorney’s office in order to be ready to move forward as soon as we could,” said Michael Edwards, Chief Assistant District Attorney.

Court circuits got the go-ahead from the Supreme Court of Georgia several weeks ago to resume jury trials if local COVID conditions allowed.

Just a few weeks ago, the DA’s office in Chatham County held a mock trial to get a feel for how Monday’s proceedings would go and work logistically. That’s because it will look a lot different inside the courtrooms for the foreseeable future, so long as the threat of the spread of COVID-19 exists. Plexiglass separates jurors from the rest of the courtroom. Their seats are spaced out and the gallery for public viewing is reduced, among other changes.

“Those protections, I’m sure, will be ensured for all of the individuals within the public, for our witnesses, for victims, for those folks that are going to be participating who are outside the system. We are very fortunate that virtually all of the folks that are within the system...the judges, the court staff, the lawyers that are going to be involved, have now had the opportunity to get vaccinated,” said Edwards.

Courthouse administrators, judges, healthcare leaders, and others are taking precautionary measures very seriously to ensure people remain safe and socially distant.

For the time being, there will be one trial a week, alternating between Judge Benjamin Karpf and Judge Timothy Walmsley.

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