Unless they bond out of jail or strike a plea agreement, criminal defendants awaiting trial in Cullman and other Alabama counties are likely to wait through most of the summer before having the opportunity to plead their cases before a jury.
Instituted in mid-May, an order by the Supreme Court of Alabama as a distancing safeguard against the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has limited local courts’ powers to convene juries for cases tried in circuit court. Any case requiring a jury trial, whether for a civil or criminal matter, won’t get a court date until the order’s Sept. 14 end date at the earliest — and, thanks to a mounting scheduling backlog, potentially even later than that.
While circuit and district courts’ many other functions are allowed to continue under the Supreme Court’s guidelines, cases that assemble juries have been temporarily delayed under the order. That means Cullman’s circuit court can’t legally set a jury trial docket until the order’s September end date has come and gone.
“We for sure won’t be able to have any trials until then,” said Circuit Clerk Lisa McSwain on Friday. “We can’t even summons a jury panel until after the September date lifts, and possibly even after that.
“We do have a criminal docket date scheduled for October, but the state court could issue another order if it believes precautions are still called for. So for us here, and really courts everywhere [in Alabama], our hands are tied even on that. We’re all just having to wait and see.”
Courts are still setting dockets for criminal pleadings, a pre-trial step that offers accused defendants an opportunity to come to the negotiating table for potential plea deals with the district attorney. But the temporary suspension of jury trials has altered the incentive for some incarcerated defendants to reach those kinds of agreements — especially in instances that involve co-defendants accused of the same crime, or when a defendant believes a jury trial might free them, or mitigate the worst of the charges against them.
Thanks to an oddity of Alabama law, the circuit court can still call in the most recently-convened grand jury, which was struck in February before the Supreme Court’s order was handed down. McSwain said a grand jury may meet in August to hand out indictments in recent criminal cases — though any defendant accused at that time will simply be added to an already-mounting backlog before reaching their day in court.