The Investigators: Justice delayed in Shelby County court means Constitutional issues for accused, victims

More than 400 jury trials are waiting to take place in Shelby County
Updated: Feb. 3, 2021 at 10:04 PM CST
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SHELBY COUNTY, Tenn. (WMC) - Jury trials have been banned across the state, which leaves the Constitutional rights of both the victims and the accused hanging in the balance.

“It’s about getting my son out of jail. I want to see my son out of jail,” said James Carter whose son is awaiting trial.

Carter’s son, Jawaun, has been behind bars since August.

Carter is up at night worrying about his son’s safety as the number of COVID-19 cases climbs inside the Shelby County Jail.

“I’m looking for justice in the American way,” said Carter.

The American way includes the Constitutional right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury as promised by the Sixth Amendment.

Jawaun is waiting for that right.

Last March, jury trials came to an abrupt halt statewide when the Tennessee Supreme Court suspended all in-person proceedings because of the pandemic.

It’s been nearly a year since a trial has taken place in Shelby County.

“Everyone was more patient at the beginning,” said Lyndi Sugg, assistant director of Shelby County Victim-Witness Unit.

While hundreds of defendants wait for their day in court, so do crime victims and their families.

“I encourage them to call me,” said Sugg. “Not a lot’s going on but if they’re frustrated just call. I will at least listen, talk to them and try to get them to understand that it’s a pandemic.”

The state supreme court did allow jury trials to resume last July if courts “strictly comply with courtroom capacity and social distancing requirement.”

That couldn’t happen in Shelby County’s current courtrooms.

While in-person proceedings that require fewer people in the courtroom have been allowed to continue, Criminal Court Judge Craft said the rooms are too small to socially distance the dozens of people needed for a jury trial.

He has over 60 trials on hold in his court alone.

“Do you think there should be other venues that you all look at to have these jury trials?” The Investigators asked Judge Craft.

“There are a lot of issues that have to do with that,” he said. “Once we leave this building, we leave a secure facility.”

“I think Shelby County should be exhausting every possibility of trying to restart jury trials. I think that should start by getting out of 201 Poplar,” said Michael R. Working, president of Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

He wrote an op-ed last year suggesting Shelby County hold jury trials in empty school auditoriums, stadiums -- even Levitt Shell.

“There are things that the American public figured out 100 years ago during the Spanish Influenza epidemic and Shelby County is not interested in trying any of them,” said Working.

The Investigators asked, “Why do you think that is?”

“Because it’s hard and it’s scary,” he answered.

But Craft says it’s too dangerous to hold jury trial elsewhere.

“What would happen if three or four people with guns came in and tried to free the defendant,” said Craft. “If we have a gang case, we can’t have it at a public school because gang members could descend on the school.”

Jury trials were shut down again by the Tennessee Supreme Court in November as the number of COVID-19 cases began to rise.

Some judges have asked for an exception to the ban on behalf of defense attorneys and prosecutors.

So far, none of those requests have come from Shelby County.

“It’s just a fact right now that it’s virtually impossible to try a case in Shelby County,” said Criminal Defense Attorney Mark Mesler.

Mesler is Jawaun’s attorney. He plans to defend his client against the aggravated robbery charge he faces once jury trials can resume.

Mesler says there’s no point in asking for an exception because there’s no place to hold a jury trial safely.

The Investigators asked, “Do you think there’s a Constitutional issue with the fact that jury trials aren’t taking place and defendants, like your client, are sitting in jail waiting for their day in court when one side of the story has been presented so far?”

“I sympathize with the problem but there’s no question, Constitutional rights have been violated,” said Mesler.

“Victims as well deserve to have their day in court and have that closure. And quite frankly the community has a role in this as well and a stake in this as well,” said Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich.

Weirich says more than 400 jury trials are on hold in Shelby County right now.

“This freeze on the ability to try cases to a jury, we’re going to feel that impact for a long time,” said Weirich.

The Investigators asked, “Could it be years to get through the cases that have stopped during the pandemic?”

“Oh, definitely,” said General Weirich.

Meanwhile, Sugg is guiding 270 murder victims’ families through a criminal justice system that, for many, has come to a halt.

“It’s hard. It’s hard to keep saying it but I just keep stressing to them -- I promise, we will keep you updated and as soon as we have any idea when we will resume jury trials we will let you know,” said Sugg.

While the Supreme Court ban remains in place, a solution is in the works when jury trials are set to resume in April. New courtrooms and a request to select from a pool of jurors who’ve already had COVID-19 are among the ideas.

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