‘We can’t catch up’: Local criminal courts face backlog of cases as jury trials resume

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SULLIVAN COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) – In-person jury trials have resumed in Sullivan County as pandemic restrictions ease.

COVID-19 guidance from the Tennessee Supreme Court restricted jury trials for most of 2020 and until the end of March 2021. Postponed trials have created a backlog of cases that criminal attorneys say is overwhelming.

Criminal Court Judge Jim Goodwin said while there was a halt to trials, the pandemic did not stop new cases from coming in.

“We can’t catch up. We won’t catch up,” he said. “We just have a backlog of trials. We’ll get through them the best we can. And that’s all we can do.”

The judge said further, “It’s like running in a pool. You’re running as hard as you can, and you’re making progress, but it’s slower than what you’re used to.”

A remodeled courtroom at the Sullivan County Justice Center

Goodwin’s courtroom was remodeled to follow the latest CDC guidelines. In the months ahead, it will serve as the location for a full slate of trials the court must prioritize.

“Obviously, jail cases have first priority because they’re incarcerated. Then you go from most serious to least serious. So you do jail cases, and then you do the most serious felonies. And that’s the order of preference,” he said.

Technology incorporated through the pandemic has made other court proceedings quicker and easier, Goodwin said. While jury trials have to be in-person, some court appearances will remain virtual going forward.

“Jail arraignments for sure, I’m hoping to do by video. Jail cases, we’ll do as many of those by video as we can to keep those cases moving,” he said.

District Attorney General Barry Staubus said aside from trials, the usual arraignments, hearings, and sentencings must also continue.

“It’s not going to be overcome overnight. It’s going to take a while. And that backlog is going to exist awhile. It’s a year, more than a year’s worth of cases,” Staubus said.

Staubus said it was difficult to determine how long it would take the court system to get caught up with cases.

“If you talk to most lawyers in the criminal justice system, they will say, ‘yes, it’s very overwhelming at this time,'” he said.

Public Defender Andrew Gibbons said his criminal attorneys normally have around 100 cases each – but their caseloads can reach up to 200 at a time now.

“You’re working on what’s right in front of you without looking ahead, just to keep your head above water,” he said.

Gibbons said Sullivan County’s pre-trial release program has helped reduce some of the caseload for the Public Defender’s Office. The program aims to bring down the number of non-violent offenders waiting in jails.

The Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office told News Channel 11 on Tuesday that 337 inmates have been released through the program since it began last year.

But many inmates are still awaiting trial. Gibbons said some of the defendants they represent face anxiety while waiting in jail for their delayed court dates.

“Because they want a resolution. They want to get their cases handled and move on with their lives,” he said.

Gibbons noted crime victims and witnesses are also having to wait for justice to be served. He said delayed results from crime laboratories and coroner’s reports are also contributing to the case backlog.

But as time and resources are strained, Gibbons also hopes the justice system doesn’t rush through cases.

“One of my big fears is people in the system – judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, Department of Corrections, whoever – they’re going to want to just start cranking out cases,” he said. “And my job is to make sure the process is fair. My job is to make sure people are protected from the system. You can’t rush that.”

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