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Order allows grand jury proceedings to resume in Georgia
Jury trials still on hold as state judicial emergency extended to Oct. 10
Newton County Superior Court Judge Ken Wynne Jr. listens as a prosecutor explains the case against murder suspect Jennifer Bellah in August. - photo by Tom Spigolon

ATLANTA — Court proceedings in Georgia will start back toward some semblance of normalcy under an order issued today, Sept. 10, by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton.

The order authorizes grand jury proceedings to resume immediately, even though jury trials are still suspended.

Melton’s order extends until Oct. 10 the statewide judicial emergency he first declared back in mid-March, as the state virtually shut down to discourage the spread of coronavirus. Today’s was the sixth 30-day extension of that original order.

While jury trials remain on hold, Melton indicated today he intends to order trials to resume when he issues the next 30-day extension next month.

“As explained in the last extension order, this broad prohibition cannot continue, even if the pandemic continues,” the chief justice wrote in Thursday’s order. “The criminal justice system, in particular, must have some capacity to resolve cases by indictment and trial.”

To lay the groundwork for a resumption of jury trials, today’s order calls for the chief judge of each superior court to assemble a local committee for each county in his or her judicial circuit. The committee, made up of judicial system participants, will develop detailed guidelines for safely resuming jury trials, based on guidelines developed by a statewide task force Melton created in May.

Melton cautioned that neither grand jury proceedings nor jury trials are expected to start until a month or longer after they are authorized because of the time it takes to summon potential jurors.

“It should also be recognized that there are substantial backlogs of unindicted cases, and due to ongoing public health precautions, those proceedings will not occur at the scale or with the speed they occurred before the pandemic,” the order states.

Melton praised courts across the state for expanding their use of remote proceedings since March through technology including videoconferencing.

“Those proceedings that can be done remotely should be done remotely,” he said. “But those that cannot – based on law or practicality – must nevertheless resume, but under strict adherence to public safety guidelines.”