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Coronavirus Is Complicating Georgia’s Justice System — With Or Without National Attention

Lawrence J. Zimmerman


This is a transcript of the GPB program “On Second Thought” which originally aired on May 15, 2020.
Click here to listen to the original broadcast.

While segments of Georgia’s economy have reopened, last week Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton extended the judicial emergency for the state’s courts until June 12.

Some procedures have been held on Zoom, but criminal and jury trails – and the summoning or impaneling of new grand juries – have been suspended since shelter-in-place orders began in mid-March.

The hold might have gone unnoticed outside the judicial system if cell phone video showing the last few minutes of Ahmaud Arbery’s life had not surfaced. The graphic video appeared to show a very different account than that of Travis and Gregory McMichael, who pursued, confronted in the street and shot Arbery.

The resulting national outrage led to both men being arrested and charged with murder and aggravated assault. But, with the ban of new grand juries, they remain in jail, unindicted.

On Second Thought unpacked how justice is operating during a pandemic first with Lawrence Zimmerman, an Atlanta-based lawyer and president of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He noted that while grand juries may start back up again mid-June, it’s possible that the judicial emergency could be extended beyond that timeframe.

“They [Chief Justice Melton and the Supreme Court] are being very cautious, and they don’t want to bring anybody into court that may get sick,” he shared. “And so I think they’re trying to decide, how can we safely gather people in a room for hours at a time to hear cases?”

Zimmerman also shed light on the distinctions of the citizen’s arrest statute in Georgia, and the requirements for someone making one.

“The crime would have to be in the immediate presence or knowledge of that person,” Zimmerman explained. “If it’s a felony, and they’re trying to escape, then you could use some kind of reasonable force.”

However, he underscored that this is a legally nuanced area. While what reasonable force looks like may vary, it is not the same as deadly force, which is limited to cases of either self-defense or if a person were continuing to commit a forcible felony.

On Second Thought also spoke with Bryant Culpepper, Georgia Senior Superior Court Judge based in Perry. Even before lawmakers, celebrities, and activists began calling for charges in the shooting of Arbery, Culpepper was concerned about the broader implications of halting criminal and jury trials, both for an already backlogged judicial system as well as for the constitutional right to a speedy trial.

“We have people that are sitting in jails that have been previously waiting on a trial, and now we can’t give them one,” he said.

Culpepper believes the drag on the court system due to coronavirus may lead to lawsuits arguing that Sixth Amendment rights were denied. However, he argued that there may be no alternatives at this point.

“It may be that this is as fast as we can go,” he offered. “This is the speed that we’re at, and that’s all we can do.”

Culpepper said that while judicial decisions on the Arbery case have become a national talking point, the case will ultimately have to proceed at the same speed as any other case in the judicial system.

“This is something of great public interest,” he said. “That case is important to a lot of people. [But] there are a lot of cases that are important to a lot of people around the state. And this one’s not going to be handled any differently than anybody else’s case.”

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