COVINGTON, Ga. — Newton County grand jurors have heard about 60 criminal cases since mid-October as the judicial system works to clear a backlog following delays prompted by statewide safety concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
Acting District Attorney Randy McGinley said a new grand jury was selected in Newton County on Oct. 14 and already has had two sessions after the Georgia Supreme Court allowed grand juries to meet again.
McGinley said grand juries historically have met monthly but increased to twice a month to handle the backlog of approximately 200 cases in each county in the Alcovy Judicial Circuit, which includes Newton and Walton counties.
The backlog included numerous murder cases and armed robberies, child victim cases and other crimes that could not legally proceed until being presented to a grand jury, McGinley said in a news release.
He said district attorney’s offices in both counties worked with the Superior Court clerks, sheriff’s offices and other courthouse and county agencies “to ensure that the process of selecting a grand jury was done safely and that guidelines from the Georgia Supreme Court and the CDC were followed.”
“Typically, each county would summon approximately 60 potential jurors with the goal of eventually selecting a grand jury of 23 individuals,” McGinley said.
However, McGinley said he worked with the clerk in each county to send out 100 summonses “due to concerns with the COVID pandemic.”
He said officials also asked the summoned county residents additional questions about symptoms or exposure to COVID-19.
After their selection, McGinley said his office worked to follow all Georgia Supreme Court and U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidelines and suggestions.
He said that effort included the grand jury meeting in a large room in the courthouse that allowed for recommended social distancing.
All grand jurors and district attorney’s office staff members wore masks, and all areas were sanitized, McGinley said.
“While we have multiple grand jury dates still to come to get through this backlog, the district attorney’s offices are working long hours to ensure these cases are properly handled,” McGinley said.
“I commend the hard work from each of our offices and thank all the other county departments for working with us to make sure grand jury started back in a safe, efficient, and effective manner.”
The Georgia Supreme Court first ordered in March that no grand jury sessions be held because of concerns about jurors possibly catching the airborne disease.
The court continued the ban monthly until lifting it for grand juries Oct. 10.
Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton wrote in the order that chief judges in each circuit work with district attorneys to ensure jurors’ safety.
“As explained in the last extension order, this broad prohibition cannot continue, even if the pandemic continues, because our judicial system, and the criminal justice system in particular, must have some capacity to resolve cases by indictment and trial,” Melton wrote.