How long until in-person court recovers in the face of the pandemic?

Defendants are starting to see trials now that the courts are resuming some in-person operations of the past. But do safety rules change what your day in court means?

The Tennessee Supreme Court suspended many in-person court proceedings through the beginning of this year because of COVID-19. Only recently, have trials begun to make a comeback. But crawling back to an already-dwindling number of jury trials compared to plea bargains could still leave your rights in question.

Pleas over trials

Plea deals continue to eclipse trials in the U.S. when it comes to felony convictions, and pandemic limitations have made it an even easier route to take. Preliminary hearings and plea bargains still have the option to continue in person when possible.

Other court business had been conducted remotely but criminal trials were postponed. After a year of these difficulties, cases are backlogged across the state as defendants who want trials wait for them. And even with the state Supreme Court loosening restrictions, things are far from routine.

Restricting recovery

Inmates are frequently being put into quarantine for possible exposure, which affects their ability to come to court.  This has some sheriff’s departments juggling upcoming court dates and limited quarantine space to avoid further delays. Even suspected exposure could postpone due process.

Courts in some areas are also limiting the number of criminal trials that can happen at the same time to allow room for social distancing. This makes for only a trickle of cases that can make their way out of the backlog.

Faulty connections

The Hamilton County Grand Juries were the first judicial body to resume in-person duties in the county. But it’s a far cry from business as usual. Grand Jurors sat spaced apart in another building with evidence beamed through a video feed from the Grand Jury room.

While it’s a step forward, there has been trouble with certain types of evidence. Verbal testimony comes through clearly, though jurors noted problems in effectively receiving video evidence.

These hurdles and more continue to make in-person sessions challenging to manage. This can be especially concerning when it comes to respecting a defendant’s rights. While the pandemic outline asks everyone, from judges to clerks, to do what they can to maintain the judicial process, the line continues to be a hard one to walk.

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