A long session with members of a committee this morning in the main courtroom of the Polk County Courthouse provided a chance for Judges, court officials and members of the County Commission to come together and discuss how to move forward with plans for holding jury trials in a timely fashion.

That meeting at one point became heated when Tallapoosa Circuit Superior Court Judges Meng Lim and Mark Murphy traded barbs amid discussions over the best way forward in jury selection and subsequent trials and begin working to whittle down thousands of cases before the bench – a growing backlog that will only get more difficult to clear up the longer that courtrooms aren’t fully functioning in the circuit.

While other courts around Polk and Haralson County’s Tallapoosa District have already resumed court work fully with the resumption of jury trials, the Tallapoosa Circuit has only moved forward with the process of summoning Grand Jury panels to hear and make indictments.

Lim gathered the committee during a 10 a.m. session to the main courtroom in Polk County Courthouse to “address some issues and concerns” raised by Murphy following the April 9 filing of an amended plan that would keep jury selection, trials and deliberations all within the confines of the main courthouse building, and not utilizing larger spaces to allow for more people in a socially distanced fashion to be selected for juries, and to spread out the court backlog that exists.

Lim turned the floor over to Murphy, who took up a seat in the witness stand on Thursday morning to explain the issues he has with the current order, of which he had not seen until the previous Monday morning.

This is the seven-page filing with the Administrative Office of Courts for Polk County’s plan to resume court:

With placing all of the process of a jury trial in one place, Murphy argued that it would limit the court’s ability to conduct speedy trials and take up more time of citizens, court personnel, attorneys on both sides of a case and judges themselves whereas utilizing other facilities like the Cedartown Performing Arts Center auditorium for jury selection would bring some haste into a process that is normally slow.

Especially this year, because the judicial system locally is facing down a real dilemma in 2021: the backlog not being addressed in a timely enough fashion and returning to jury cases could end up forcing the courts to drop charges against defendants since they are unable to have a speedy trial.

State statutes on the requirement for a speedy trial were put on hold because of the pandemic emergency orders filed by Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton. However, those don’t override the sixth amendment right to a speedy trial in the Bill of Rights for the United States Constitution. Because courts are now holding jury trials in every circuit in Northwest Georgia but the Tallapoosa Circuit currently, attorneys for defendants could take advantage of this and force judges to drop charges since trials are being held elsewhere, and not here.

Lim said before Murphy addressed the court that “this is a problem that none of us asked for, and was brought to us by the pandemic and brought the judicial system to its knees throughout the nation and the state.”

Murphy proposed to increase the number of potential courtrooms and bring in a pair of senior judges to help during 10 weeks planned for criminal jury trials along with utilizing the Performing Arts Center for jury selection.

He pointed toward his 1,700-plus criminal cases overall – more than 800 filed in 2020 alone – as the main reason why it would be prudent to bring in help from outside the circuit to take on some of the workload the court faces in the months and years ahead to catch back up.

Among those are 12 cases where inmates for reasons of public safety have remained in jail for hundreds of days – 428 on average – and with one still in jail 1,033 days after he was first arrested and charged. That costs taxpayers some $205,000 for the 12 to be housed annually while awaiting trial.

This backlog of cases is only for Polk County. His workload in Haralson County by comparison is at around 390 cases, with Polk having around six cases for everyone that is filed in Haralson County, give or take.

In Murphy’s request to consider – which he put before the committee as a motion on the two separate issues – he had support from Polk County Commissioners Scotty Tillery and Chair Hal Floyd, who both stated that they were willing to provide whatever financial support was necessary and help with facilities to help get the courts up and running again.

Tillery made it clear that as a Commissioner, he is hearing from members of the community that they want to be able to get back in the courtroom and reclaim their lives by facing charges they might have, as well as the police officers who are consistently jailing repeat offenders over the past year and unable to keep them housed in jail because of the pandemic.

“We’re at a point in our community where people are demanding justice right now,” Tillery said.

The Polk County Sheriff’s Office has begun to take in and house more inmates as restrictions from COVID-19 have loosened with the lowering number of new cases reported in the community.

Sheriff Johnny Moats also stated that even if off-duty deputies on another shift were required to be called in to help with courtroom security at other venues, his office would be able to provide the manpower to make Murphy’s plan a possibility.

Karen Wilkes, one of the two Public Defenders for the circuit, explained that she had some concerns about the potential for using other facilities for jury trials, including a discussion of potentially utilizing the Polk County Commission Meeting Room for trials, which is connected to the Polk County Police Department’s headquarters. Murphy said he understood those concerns, but stated that other attorneys likely would not have a problem bringing their clients in for trials in that particular facility. Other options are available, like the Polk County Emergency Management building, the CPAC auditorium, and two spaces at Cedartown High School with the new fine arts wing auditorium, or the HON Room at the Polk County College and Career Academy.

District Attorney Jack Browning reminded the gathered committee members that he was in favor of plans to have jury summons held at the Cedartown Performing Arts Center, the court needed to also be flexible in their planning to account for anything that might come up in what could be a potentially narrow window of time to address court proceedings.

He did point out that at anytime conditions around the pandemic could change for the worse, or continue to improve and provide further leeway for the court to open back up fully and not have to following social distancing guidelines, the use of masks and other restrictions in place.

Browning also pointed to the Grand Jury process and the positive feedback from participants about proceedings that gives him the confidence that the Tallapoosa Circuit can move forward and handle any possible situation that might arise.

Haralson County officials at the meeting today said their plan was to utilize some of the school spaces for their jury trials and summons to help with overflow.

Along with Polk, Haralson County Commissioner David Tarpley expressed his county’s desire to move forward with jury trials as well and provide any help they can in the process as well.

However, Tarpley complained that trying to blame the backlog purely on COVID-19 and bringing in additional judges to help clear the caseload and said “something is going on mysteriously in the Polk County judicial system” because of the number of cases the bench faces locally in Superior Court. Tarpley later stated that he wasn’t looking to inject politics into the situation.

Murphy responded that much of the previous backlog of cases before his courtroom came from the previous man in his car: Judge Michael Murphy. He additionally defended his time on the bench by stating that he’s unable to begin work on jury trials again until Lim signs off on summons that need to go out in May for people to show up for court service in June.

Additionally, he said that “I move as many cases as I can, and am neck to neck with Judge Lim. I’m not ashamed of my work ethic.”

Also in the courtroom and taking part in the meeting was local attorney Bill Lundy, who though not normally representing defendants in criminal cases did raised concerns about the potential for jurors coming to criminal trials to become ill and die from COVID-19 under any plan, and raised questions about the trial of Samantha Michelle Roof, 22, and Seth Brandon Spangler, 31, both accused and charged in the shooting death of Detective Kristen Hearne in late September 2017. That trial was set to start in 2020 prior to the pandemic and was slowed because of its status as a death penalty case.

Lundy raised security concerns about that trial when it comes before the court.

Though Murphy said he would not comment on where that case might be held because of Lundy’s security concerns for the court, but did say plans for that case to be heard before the court are for later in the year, with jury selection planned for late October to November, and the trial to start no later than December.

Lim at one point in the meeting as the discussion continued and grew more involvd moved from a place where he was sitting near the jury box in the courtroom up to his seat on the bench above Murphy and everyone else when Murphy pointed out that the amended plan filed on April 9 puts an “unnecessary funnel to have to live with facing 1,700+ cases” and that the circuit “doesn’t have to do it this way.”

The chief judge of the circuit shot back that “Judges are supposed to communicate together” and that “I haven’t seen these other facilities” as the discussion grew heated over the plan forward. He additionally said he was “happy to be able to have three jury trials going at the same time” but that in reality, the biggest problem would be with the Public Defender’s office being able to handle that schedule.

Only two public defenders are hired in the Tallapoosa Circuit, which the state allows for the number of judges in each circuit. Any additional public defenders for the office or staff are hired locally.

Each of the circuit’s court-appointed attorneys has a caseload of more than 800+ people to defend currently. The American Bar Association’s recommendation for how many an attorney should handle in a year is 200, and usually a public defender can adequately get to 60 cases a year if they go to trial with a proper defense.

Lim also was heated when he asked why a camera bracket hadn’t yet been hung in the courtroom, which Commissioner Tillery replied that many of the items the court has requested to be done to facilitate restrictions on proceedings because of the pandemic, but that the bracket in question would be put up today.

Murphy ultimately said the lack of communication about the plan is why he sought the meeting on April 15 for this morning, and ultimately came away with no real sense of movement forward on a plan.

While Murphy later in the meeting recounted a third time that the committee who is organizing the plan to resume jury trials have met only twice – and the second time in March with only hours notice and with only five of the members in attendance – Lim shot back an accusation that Murphy and others had met in a Zoom video conference without his knowledge, and turned to Wilkes to explain that situation.

Wilkes and Murphy both stated the Zoom call was over Murphy’s trial calendar and specific cases that were set to come before the court when jury trials resume following June.

Though Murphy sought to have the committee vote on a way forward with additional sites being used for jury selection at the very least, Lim said he was taking advice from the committee but the decision on how to move forward with court was up to him.

Leave a comment

Please Login to Comment.