Coronavirus shutdowns cause major backup in Shelby County court system

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The coronavirus pandemic has caused cases to pile up in the Shelby County courts, and judges predict it could be months before they get caught up.

The Tennessee Supreme Court started limiting operations in mid-March in civil, criminal and juvenile courts to stem the spread of COVID-19. That left the normally bustling Shelby County Criminal Justice Center in Memphis nearly bare.

“End of February, first of March is when we knew things were coming our way,” Division 8 Judge Chris Craft said. “We started realizing that people in our building have the virus. Police were afraid to arrest people, because they would get the virus.”

So those defendants out on bond continue to have their cases reset, and Craft said the court doesn’t bring any prisoners up unless they have a bond or probation hearing, a probation violation, or they’re entering a guilty plea.

“We know ahead of time who is going to be disposed of, and so we have them checked medically before they come to court,” Craft said.

“Nothing is happening, and when we do reopen, it’s going to be a mountain of work”

Attorney Leslie Ballin
Chris Craft’s courtroom in Shelby County’s Criminal Justice Center is eerily empty during the coronavirus shutdown.

The courtroom almost looked eerie during a recent visit. Besides the approved inmate, we saw a few bailiffs wearing masks, a court reporter, prosecutor and only one defense attorney inside at a time, unless the state supreme court grants special permission.

“The only cases that are really being heard are cases where your cases are in custody and can be released,” attorney Leslie Ballin said.

During WREG’s courtroom visit, we witnessed Ballin’s client getting eight years probation instead of jail time. It’s a deal some believe wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the virus.

As for his other cases, Ballin said the court system is jammed.

“Nothing is happening, and when we do reopen, it’s going to be a mountain of work,” Ballin said.

Judge Craft predicted that courts will be able to try cases again in late July or August, and they would be very careful with jurors.

Since March 1, he said he’s reset nearly 30 trials.

“Maybe next summer we will be caught up with our trials,” Craft said. “Probably be January or February before the bond cases and the backlog is worked out.”

Craft said the people in jail are taking top priority right now, especially since there has been a serious coronavirus outbreak there.

Around 200 inmates and employees reportedly tested positive, even as they work to reduce the jail’s population.

District Attorney Amy Weirich said that the combined populations of the jail, Penal Farm and Juvenile Court are down 30% since COVID-19.

That’s through bond reductions and resolving existing cases without trial. She said their goal is to keep violent, repeat offenders behind bars.

“We don’t have people in custody as what we characterize as low bonds, if it’s their first offense,” Weirich said.

Now, the state Supreme Court is requiring comprehensive plans from each judicial district, outlining safety procedures for in-person proceedings moving forward.

Craft said their plan hasn’t been approved yet, but includes wellness and temperature checks. Masks will be recommended, and of course, social distancing. Yellow tape already marks where to stand and sit, all six feet apart.

“Maybe next summer we will be caught up with our trials.”

Criminal court judge chris craft
The Criminal Justice Center at 201 Poplar

The county’s Health Department director told county commissioners she is also helping.

“One of the things we can do is provide some of the masks that were given to us from the state health department, particularly those coming in from the public,” Dr. Alisa Haushalter said.

Limitations are also expected to continue on how many people are allowed in a courtroom.

Craft said keeping people out of the courtroom could create constitutional issues that he would have to deal with.

“The Constitution, it says we have to have public trials. So if somebody really wanted to be in court, during that person’s hearing, I would just have to reset their hearing,” he said.

Craft said they have the technology to conduct court online, as long as the defendant waives his or her right for confrontation. Those details would have to be worked out.

“We could have a trial and we could have jurors spread around the courtroom, and then we could have witnesses testify over the video,” he said.

This week, grand juries resumed and the hope is other in-person proceedings will follow suit — with caution.

“It’s like what Dwight Eisenhower said. D-Day was a great plan until the day it started,” Craft said. “When we start I’m sure we’re going to have to make some changes.”

WREG has requested the master plan for Shelby County courts through an open records request.

As of now, no trials can happen until at least July 3.

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