Cullman County Courts: Dec. 14 jury trial docket postponed

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CULLMAN, Ala. – Cullman County Presiding Judge Gregory Nicholas on Wednesday issued an order postponing the Dec. 14, 2020 jury trial docket until a later time due to COVID concerns.

A press release issued with the order reads:

After conducting three successful jury sessions since jury trials resumed three months ago, a decision has been made to temporarily postpone the jury session scheduled to begin Dec. 14, 2020.   While there have been no reported COVID-19 transmissions among court participants since the resumption of jury trials in September, the number of local people infected with the virus has significantly increased during the past few weeks. 

For most people, the COVID-19 virus does not cause any long-term health concerns. But for a significant minority of people, especially older individuals and those with underlying health conditions, the virus can prove very serious, and even fatal.  At least 40 people in our area have already died as a result of COVID-19 complications.  Presently, 52 individuals are hospitalized at the Cullman Regional Medical Center who have tested positive for the virus and 10 of these individuals are currently on ventilators.  

Finding the right balance between preserving people’s access to the courts and protecting the most vulnerable people in our community from the potential harm posed by the current pandemic is never easy. The best medical advice currently available suggests that a large gathering of individuals for jury service so soon after the Thanksgiving holiday would be unwise and lead to an even greater spread of the virus within our community.  According to a risk assessment developed by Georgia Tech University, whenever 100 or more people are gathered together, there is a 98% chance that at least one person in the group has the COVID-19 virus.  

After consulting with State Health Officer, Dr. Scott Harris, local health care officials, District Attorney Wilson Blaylock, Circuit Court Clerk Lisa McSwain and Circuit Judge Martha Williams, as well as other judges from around our state, the risk to potential jurors, court participants and their families that could result from a large gathering of potential jurors is simply unacceptable in light of current and projected conditions.

Therefore, an order has been entered canceling the Dec. 14, 2020 jury trial session. Individuals who have received a summons to appear for jury service on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020 do not need to appear. Those individuals who have used the new online procedure to qualify and check-in for jury service have already been notified of the cancellation by email. 

“One of the big advantages of the new online system is that communication has been greatly improved between potential jurors and the court system,” said Nicholas. “We are now able to send emails directly to those individuals who qualified online and notify them of the cancellation. That will prevent those individuals from having to take time off from work or disrupt their normal routines to come to the courthouse only to learn that court has been cancelled,” continued Nicholas. “Those jurors that were not able to use the online system to qualify should be receiving a written order by regular mail notifying them of the court postponement and releasing them from their summons. If conditions improve, it is expected that jury trials will resume in January and new juror summons will be issued.”

Non-jury trials not impacted

The order postponing jury trials in December does not apply to smaller in-person court proceedings held in the local circuit and district courts.  Any decision regarding postponement of those cases will be made by the circuit or district court judge assigned to handle the cases. 

Nicholas noted that, “Even after in-person judicial proceedings were suspended by order of the Alabama Supreme Court in March of last year, Cullman Circuit and District Courts remained open, thanks to rule changes authorized by the Alabama Supreme Court that permitted the use of video conference software to conduct ‘virtual court’ hearings.  Once in-person trials and hearings were permitted to resume in May, COVID-19 protocols were quickly adopted that allowed most non-jury in-person court hearings to immediately resume. It’s vitally important that we take precautions to keep people safe during the pandemic, while preserving the public’s access to courts. To accomplish that goal, temporary postponements of some court proceedings will sometimes be necessary.”

Nicholas’ order reads:

IN THE 32ND JUDICIAL CIRCUIT

STATE OF ALABAMA

Because of the significant increase in COVID-19 cases reported in our community during the past several weeks and the expected surge in COVID-19 cases after the Thanksgiving holiday, the undersigned finds that the risk to potential jurors, court participants and their families that could result from a large gathering of individuals is unacceptable. Therefore, it is hereby ORDERED that the jury session currently scheduled to begin December 14, 2020 is hereby cancelled and all cases set on that docket shall be carried over until the next scheduled jury session.  The Circuit Court Clerk shall immediately notify all individuals that have been summoned to appear on December 14, 2020 for jury service of the cancellation and provide a copy of this order to the Alabama Administrative Office of Courts.

Done this the 24th day of November 2020.

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W.C. Mann

craig@cullmantribune.com