MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - Nearly all jury trials in Montgomery County have been at a standstill since March 2020 because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The standstill has caused an enormous backlog in prosecutions, including murder cases.
“We have 191 murder cases pending in our office right now,” said Montgomery County District Attorney Daryl Bailey.
Of the 191 homicide cases in limbo, 81 cases are awaiting trial. The remaining 110 are awaiting a grand jury.
“It’s takes a long time just to get a murder case through the criminal justice system as it is, but when you’re talking (nearly) 200 of them backlogged, it’s going to take a long time,” the DA said.
According to Bailey, presiding Circuit Court Judge Johnny Hardwick has decided to not have any trials until May 1, 2021, because of the lack of space and social distancing capabilities inside court rooms.
“Because of the judge’s order we haven’t been able to hold a grand jury,” Bailey explained. “We held one in October, but before that we haven’t had one since March.”
The 15th Judicial Circuit covering Montgomery County impanels a grand jury each month to consider upwards of 400 cases.
“We are probably two [thousand] to 2,500 cases backlogged just on our grand jury,” Bailey stated. “We have never had this type of delay in the criminal justice system.”
The good news is that Bailey has confirmed they are going forward with a grand jury on Monday, Feb. 22.
“We have about 700 cases slated for the next two weeks on grand jury,” Bailey calculated.
But until they can get caught up, families and defendants will continue to wait.
“It’s horrible for the defendant that has to wait for their day in court, most of them in jail, but it’s especially horrible for the victims’ families that have to wait this long to get justice,” Bailey said. “It will take years for us to get these cases through the criminal justice system.”
And while families wait for justice to be served, more homicide cases are being added to the backlog.
According to Capt. Saba Coleman with the Montgomery Police Department, the city is investigating 11 homicides so far in 2021. That’s a slight increase from the nine cases reported during the same time in 2020.
2020 saw 68 total homicides in Montgomery. That was up by 26 cases from the previous year when MPD worked 42 homicides
“We can’t stand by and just let this continue,” Bailey said in reference to the uptick in homicides. “We’ve got to keep searching for answers of what we can do to make a difference in our city and our community to stop these homicides.”
Out of the 11 homicides for 2021, arrests have been made in 10 cases. Coleman said Montgomery concluded 2020 with a solvability rate of 74 percent, and the police department’s current 2021 solvability rate is at 91 percent.
MPD Chief Ernest Finley made the following remarks in regards to the 2021 homicide rate:
“We will continue to be visible and proactive in our communities while conducting relentless follow-ups.”
With grand jury trials set to resume next week, Bailey assures those getting summoned for jury duty that every precaution will be taken to ensure their safety.
“Grand jury is a little bit different than a regular proceeding. We are able to sufficiently space people out,” Bailey said. “We are going to be using a large area, a large room, to be able to do that. We have plenty of PPE (personal protective equipment), plexiglass, and tools that will keep the grand jurors safe.”
The Montgomery County Courthouse also has a newly expanded jury selection room to accommodate for social distancing, even for large crowds.