Defense lawyer gives grim outlook for court system next year due to pandemic – WJXT News4JAX

Next year could shape up to be a devastating year for the criminal justice system, according to Shannon Schott, president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Northeast Chapter.

News4Jax spoke with Schott concerning issues with courts being able to get enough people to respond to jury summons to seat a jury. That’s when Schott said: “There’s going to be a complete collapse of the criminal justice system if we don’t take action, and really, it’s not the defense bar who needs to be worried about this issue. It’s going to be the prosecutor’s office who needs to be triaging the cases that are important to take to trial versus DUIs, possession of drugs, petit theft.”

News4Jax started looking into the issue of case backlog after learning about a recent attempt by Clay County to seat a grand jury. It would have been the first jury seated in the county since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Here’s what Clay County sent to News4Jax:

400 citizens were mailed summons (pool based on list provided by the DMV)

Of the 400, 160 citizens’ excusals were granted for various reasons:

  • COVID-19 options list (similar to CDC guidelines used for entrance screening)
  • Other health-related and/or age-related conditions
  • Residency (no longer a Clay County resident)
  • Mental capacity
  • Summons returned in the mail (inaccurate address on file with DMV)

240 citizens remained in the pool as potential jurors.

14 appeared in court as directed/requested (one extra was turned away for recently being in contact with someone who was COVID-19-positive).

Due to only 15 showing up to the courthouse, Clay County Clerk of Courts Tara Green said: “We were disappointed in the turn-out, certainly. It does, however, serve as an indicator of the level of concern that may remain in our population. Our team will continue to partner with the judiciary and with county leadership to provide the best venue possible to conduct safe court proceedings. The right to a fair trial by a jury of our peers is the cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment. Every citizen should take their jury summons seriously and respond in good faith if no valid excuse applies.”

Clay County has put out a video to residents showing all the cleaning going on at the courthouse to make it a safe environment for prospective jurors. There is a jury trial slated for Jan. 19 in a grand theft case, and jury summons will be going out in the next week.

News4Jax also reached out to St. Johns County, which has had a little more success. The county has actually seated some juries in the past few months.

Here is the county’s data:

September 2020

Sept. 14: 500 summons sent out – 30 attendees (1st jury selection since pandemic)

Sept. 24: 500 summons sent out – canceled

Notes:

756 excused

1 panel of jurors seated – jury trial took place on Sept. 15

October 2020

Oct. 12: 180 summons sent out – 30 attendees

Oct. 19: 200 summons – 30 attendees

Notes:

127 excused

Fall grand jury empaneled

1 panel of jurors seated – jury trial took place on Oct. 19

November 2020

Nov. 11: 240 summons sent out – canceled

11/16 240 summons sent out – 30 attendees

Notes:

393 excused

1 panel of jurors seated – jury trial took place

December 2020

Dec. 7: 240 summons sent out – 50 attendees

Dec. 14: 240 summons sent out – canceled

Notes:

387 excused

1 panel of jurors seated – jury trial took place

The jury selection and trial scheduled for Dec. 14 was canceled by Chief Judge Raul Zambrano.

January 2021

Jan. 19: 240 summons sent out

Jan. 25: 240 summons sent out

Notes:

Summons mailed on Dec. 8 – 34 excused so far

Overall, this is an issue at least at the state level — if not beyond.

“We were seating jurors for five, 10, 20 trials, and that has ceased completely. Up until Oct. 12, when there were two trials maybe going and just the important ones,” said Schott. “If you have a civil dispute or car accident case or any sort of contract dispute or business dispute, and now your case is deprioritized. So the only cases prioritized are the felony trials.”

News4Jax also asked Schott about the issue of speedy trials. A right to a speedy trial is laid out in the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Schott said the Florida Supreme Court had put a stay on that for the time being, meaning jury trials are delayed and criminal defendants can’t use it to have their charges dropped. But she pointed out that it hasn’t been litigated yet and someone could feasibly challenge the Florida Supreme Court order.

“To be completely candid,” said Schott, “I don’t think this issue has been completely litigated.”

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