Cobb Superior Court ready for first jury trials in 13 months

Chart Riggall, Marietta Daily Journal, Ga.
·3 min read

Apr. 17—MARIETTA — Ten weeks ago, as Georgia was still in the throes of its mid-winter COVID-19 surge, Cobb Superior Court Chief Judge Robert Leonard said of the eventual return to regular court activities, "hope is not a plan."

As Cobb's first jury trials in over a year are set to begin Monday, it's fair to say the court has a plan, and then some.

Leonard, along with Judge Ann Harris (who will take the bench for the first trial), Jury Administrator Wendy Portwood, and Court Administrator Christopher Hansard showed off on Friday a carefully managed and fine-tuned courthouse ready to welcome jurors back into the fold.

"Phase one" of the reopening will be limited to the building's ceremonial courtroom, by far the largest courtroom in the building. Blue tape is laid out every 6 feet. Jurors are spaced accordingly, with half sitting in the jury box and half on one side of the gallery. Disposable sleeves cover the microphones, and air purifiers will circulate constantly. And that's just what they thought of at first.

In November, the court conducted a mock trial with courthouse employees to test out the new format. The "jurors" said the gallery benches were uncomfortable, and the light was too dim — Portwood bought a lamp and memory foam cushions. The "attorneys" realized the jurors could see their laptops while seated behind them, so frosted plastic was put up.

The judges then noticed the attorneys couldn't see the jurors through the frosted plastic, and beyond that, it was near impossible to study a witness who testified with a mask on. So now, the attorneys' tables face away from the judge, the witness box is encased in plexiglass, and cameras and TV screens show every angle of the trial and broadcast it to the overflow seating rooms upstairs.

"You're just constantly trying to tweak it to get it as fair as possible and as normal as possible," Harris said.

It's a topsy-turvy courtroom, but it should get the job done.

The preparations extend well beyond the time when court is formally in session. Portwood has set up staggered arrival times for jurors, who will be presented with a high-gloss brochure explaining all the new procedures and precautions. She said that innovation is one she'll be keeping even post-pandemic.

The jury's deliberation area has been expanded from the size of a broom closet to a spacious conference room with separate desks. The court also purchased individual iPads so jurors can review evidence without crowding around one another.

The sheriff's office, Leonard added, is offering vaccines, isolation, and testing to inmates whose trial dates are imminent.

"We've put a lot of thought into how to keep them safe as we return to the courthouse," Leonard said. "It's a macro consideration, it's not just in here during the trial."

The court still faces a hefty backlog of cases from the year without trials (in January, Leonard estimated it would take about three years to clear). But Judge Harris has been encouraged as, with trials back on the horizon, more plea bargains and negotiations go through.

"The resolution of cases is actually following the normal pattern ... cases have been in suspended animation for 14, 13 months, and so there was no deadline really pushing anybody," she said.

Asked whether Gov. Brian Kemp's easing of COVID-19 restrictions has changed the court's protocols, Leonard said he feels compelled to stick with the CDC's more stringent guidelines. That's in large part, he emphasized, because unlike going out for a cocktail and a burger, there's nothing voluntary about court.

Harris agreed, and offered up her own litmus test.

"We figured a real easy solution is — you know what? Just follow all the rules as if we didn't even have a vaccine."