A second Polk County grand jury, separate from the one impaneled last month following the easing of COVID-19 restrictions for Georgia superior courts, will help get through the extensive backlog of criminal cases being overseen by the district attorney’s office.
Tallapoosa Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jack Browning said he will summon a concurrent grand jury — which is allowed by state law — to come in the first of December and work through more cases.
Browning and his staff went into the start of the grand jury’s session last month with over 200 cases that had built up over the six-month court closure. In the end, they were able to present 96 cases over a five-day span with all but three returning a true bill for indictment.
Having a second grand jury, while giving the original one a break, also keeps from having the same group return and be together for a longer amount of time in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m going to have two concurrent grand juries coming in not only to help me move business but, more importantly, it gives them a break from their obligation,” Browning said, adding that the first grand jury can be recalled to hear more cases if he still has a backlog.
Both grand juries would be impaneled through February, with a new court term beginning in March.
Most court operations were shut down statewide by a judicial emergency order issued by the state supreme court in mid-March, leading to a six-month halt to all in-person court activities, including all grand juries and jury trials.
Browning said they turned to video and online technology to hold court hearings and meetings during the pandemic.
When Georgie Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton issued his sixth extension of the emergency order in September, it authorized grand jury proceedings to resume while still suspending jury trials.
“We are starting to transition back toward having more in person hearings, to the extent that we can and when we can and when folks are comfortable doing that,” Browning said.
The district attorney’s office as well as the clerk of court’s office have to work to make sure all state and local COVID-19 guidelines are being followed in order to impanel a grand jury, including physical distancing.
“The thought was the grand jury is a smaller setting. You’re not bringing in as many people to impanel a grand jury as you are to have a jury trial,” Browning said. “So it’s easier, more manageable, to begin with the grand jury, and that’s why the supreme court said, ‘yeah, you can do that.’”
As far as jury trials go, Browning said he hopes to begin those at some point in 2021, although it will not look like it always has in the past.
The Tallapoosa Judicial Circuit’s COVID-19 Task Force, which has to file protocol and guidelines with the state supreme court before beginning to schedule and conduct jury trials, has met once.
But Browning said the summoning of a grand jury is a good sign to see how people feel about gathering and conducting court business in times of COVID-19.
Lots of pre-planning went into calling in the 23 members of the grand jury that was summoned last month, including questionnaires to determine any health-related concerns.
The courtroom was petitioned off with plexiglass to encourage physical distancing, everyony was required to wear a mask or facial covering, and a plexiglass barrier was placed around the witness stand.
“I looked at this as kind of a baby step and I wanted to do things safely,” Browning said. “I didn’t see the point of, well I’ve got a lot of cases, let me bring in two grand juries right away. Let’s bring in one and we’ll see how this goes.”
He encouraged the members of the grand jury to communicate with the bailiffs and courts staff if they had any concerns from a health standpoint, but Browning said they didn’t have any suggestions.
“So I take that as cautiously optimistic that we did everything right, but I still think there’s always places that we can learn and do things better,” Browning said. “So we’re going to be looking at those as we continue to bring in juries.”
Among the cases that have yet to be presented to a grand jury is the hit-and-run death of 38-year-old Erik Keais last September, which was slated to be heard by the grand jury in March before the statewide judicial emergency was issued.