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DA asks Newton residents to answer jury duty call
Low turnouts being seen compared to pre-COVID days
Assistant District Attorney Amber Bennett Dally and Public Defender Anthony Carter discuss motions made prior to the trial of James Gary Hill III in July 2019 in Newton County Superior Court. - photo by File Photo

COVINGTON, Ga. — Newton County’s district attorney recently made a simple request — but it is one many apparently are finding difficult to grant.

“Please, please come for jury service,” District Attorney Randy McGinley asked attendees at a recent gathering of the Newton County Republican Party.

Only about one in four Newton residents being called to jury duty are showing up for it — despite its importance in keeping the wheels of justice turning for victims and their families, McGinley said.

Jury trials resumed in Newton County in March after a yearlong delay. Yet, a recent call led to only about 52 potential jurors answering out of 200 — 26% — who were sent notices, McGinley said.

He said he also is seeing a similar turnout in Walton County which, with Newton County, comprises the two-county Alcovy Judicial Circuit.

About 55% of those called for jury duty showed up before the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the closings of courthouses statewide in March 2020, McGinley said.

His office recently hired three new prosecutors for pending cases — including 13 murder cases awaiting court action, McGinley said.

"A lot of them are cases involving victims, a lot of them are vulnerable victims — children — or murder cases, very serious cases," he said. "If we're running into issues of not having enough jurors then we're not going to resolve those cases."

He noted some potential jurors have legitimate medical or other types of excuses that keep them from serving.

However, those without legitimate excuses may face the prospect of being ordered to appear before a judge to answer why they were not in contempt of court for not appearing, McGinley said.

The DA's office began trying some “less-complicated” cases after it began conducting jury trials again this year. It will begin "trying those 20- or 30-witness" murder cases in August, he said.

The circuit has about 25 weeks of jury trials annually, McGinley said.

Because of the yearlong delay, the Alcovy circuit will need to conduct jury trials through 2022 before it is back on a normal schedule, he said.

“We’re struggling to catch up,” McGinley said.

The DA told a reporter a way to "catch up" and return to a regular schedule is to try more than one murder case per week "which means we're going to need more jurors."

He said historically more potential jurors are excused from service when they hear the facts of cases involving death, domestic violence or sex crimes than, for example, shoplifting cases.

As a result, McGinley said his office begins with 48 potential jurors to get to the required total of 12 jurors for felony cases, plus two alternates.

The Alcovy Circuit also may have to perform jury selection on two serious felony cases simultaneously, meaning 96 potential jurors may be needed at one time, he said.

"We're not close to those numbers," McGinley said.

He said those types of cases "are tough because you've got victims and victims' families and (the accused) sitting in jail, too."

"You've got to have these cases move because there are people on all sides that deserve to have a court date in a reasonably fast period of time," he said.

He told Newton County Republicans there also is a cost to taxpayers when cases are not resolved.

The Superior Court was forced to delay action on a rape case recently because it lacked enough jurors — meaning the county will continue to pay to house the suspect until a jury can be seated, he said.

“That victim has to wait,” McGinley said.


McGinley said he has been touting the importance of jury duty to local civic groups, as well.

"In our society there are not a whole lot of things that people are required to do," McGinley said. "This is one of them and it's a very important thing.

"If you or someone you love is either a victim of a crime or charged with a crime, you'd want people to show up for jury duty to make sure that both sides get a fair trial," McGinley said. "That's the important thing."

Former Chief Justice Harold Melton made his own appeal to Georgians in March when the state Supreme Court lifted the suspension of jury trials in Georgia.

“You and every citizen of Georgia are critical to this process because we cannot conduct a trial by jury without jurors, without you,” Melton said.

He said the state’s courts have “put into place the most rigorous safety protocols available” including pre-screening for health risks of all parties, temperature checks, masks, plexiglass barriers, touch-free evidence technology, constant surface cleaning, and the reconfiguration of courtrooms and jury spaces to ensure social distancing.

McGinley is a member of a committee that oversees safety precautions in the Judge Horace Johnson Jr. Judicial Center in Covington.

He said prior to a jury call for July 12, potential jurors were being excused if they indicated on questionnaires they had been exposed to COVID-19, McGinley said.

However, the summons for the week of Aug. 2 and afterward will not include a questionnaire and affidavit in the summons that includes the COVID question — though if they show up on the day of court showing symptoms they will be excused, he said.

As of July 1, jurors were required to wear masks when all together in the jury impaneling room. When in the courtroom, jurors are only required to remain three feet apart per CDC guidelines and those who have been fully vaccinated do not have to wear masks inside the courthouse, he said.