Mobile, Ala. (WKRG)– Courts in Alabama are trying to overcome a huge challenge in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak–reopening the courts for jury trials. Jury trials have been suspended since March. They are slated to begin again September 14th. Among the challenges is reassuring potential jurors they can be safe.
One of the first criminal cases slated for trial once jurors can return is the felony murder case of Israel Hall. Hall is charged in the random shooting death of Delauna Powell in 2016. Hall was sixteen at the time.
When he was arrested Hall told reporters, “I agreed on stealing a car–I ain’t agreed on killing nobody.”
The question from Hall’s defense attorney is can he get a fair trial in this pandemic environment–and with jurors who may be reluctant to be there.
“They might be in a hurry to render a verdict because they don’t want to be around,” said attorney Buzz Jordan. “And just that element alone could create an unfair trial for any defendant going to trial in Mobile County or anywhere in the United States.”
District Attorney Ashley Rich wants Hall’s trial to move forward as scheduled, with a jury.
“The state of Alabama is ready to try Israel Hall,” she said.
In Mobile County, when juries are assembled they’re called to the jury assembly room on the eighth floor of government plaza. It’s a special courtroom with some three-hundred-fifty seats and not much room for social distancing. Where to put a pool of potential jurors so that they can remain apart from one another was one challenge. Court officials are considering the idea of assembling the jurors at the Mobile Civic Center instead.
Courts in Mobile County are unique because they are state courts, housed in a county facility–Government Plaza. Now the City of Mobile’s Public Safety Director is actively working to help those court rooms become virtual courtrooms, too.
James Barber says extra cameras, monitors, microphones and audio equipment is necessary and that equipment is in high demand across the country.
Right now, two courtrooms are being equipped with that gear, along with plexiglass shields between jurors, witnesses and the judge. Jurors will no longer sit in the traditional jury box, but in the spectator gallery–and at a distance from each other.
But there is also pressure to resume jury trials sooner rather than later to keep the backlog of cases from growing any longer.
“Since March 15th, we have arrested more than three thousand criminal defendants for felony offenses,” said D.A. Rich.
For several weeks the Alabama Administrative Office of the Courts has been testing an online summons system, allowing potential jurors to answer questions about their eligibility. It has been revealing.
“A significant number of people have said I’m not qualified to serve and the reason is I’m just afraid to come down to a big facility with a lot of people,” said Presiding Circuit Court Judge Michael Youngpeter.
Judge Youngpeter said jury trials in Mobile will resume on September 14th, but it has not yet been decided whether the case of Israel Hall, a case that’s almost four years old, will go forward as scheduled. But District Attorney Rich is imploring people who get a jury summons to come to court and perform their civic duty–and avoid any more cases of delayed justice.
“I’m having to look at victims of crime and victim’s families and tell them that their case is going to be delayed another year,” she said.
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