Shelby County courts to reopen slowly with new protocols, big case backlog

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The wheels of justice are slowly beginning to turn again in Shelby County courtrooms after a COVID shutdown. 

Starting March 15, more people may be allowed back in courtrooms. But some things will be different.   

There’s a new COVID protocol when you enter the Criminal Justice Center in Memphis. Not just metal detectors, but also temperature screenings. In the hallways outside courtrooms there are distance markers to make sure people stand 6 feet apart.

But in the courtrooms, things are finally beginning open up.

“March 15th those folks that are on bond, not in custody will be allowed to be back in the courthouse,” says Judge Lee Coffee, who is the Administrator in Shelby County Criminal Court.

He said now that the coronavirus appears to be waning, more gavels will once again be heard.

The state Supreme Court suspended all proceedings after the pandemic. The only cases heard have been guilty pleas and bond issues.

“We have not tried a case in Shelby County for over a year,” Coffee said.

Jury trials will still be suspended at least until March 31.

The suspensions have led to a huge backlog in cases. They normally would hear 200 to 300 jury trials a year.

“For the last year we have tried a total of 20 jury trials. It will take at least a year or two before we can at least get caught up in jury cases,” Coffee said.

Things like first-degree murder cases and jail custody cases will be given priority.

But when trials do resume they will do so in a very  different way, in bigger courtrooms to keep things safe for everyone.

“When we resume trying cases, we will actually try cases on the fourth floor because those courtrooms are bigger. They still aren’t complete yet,” Coffee said.
  
But they are further along than when our cameras captured pictures back in December as the fourth floor was being transformed. Today the work is almost complete with larger courtrooms, spread out and everything spaced off.

“The courtroom that have been developed have plexi glass around the witness areas around the judges areas, around the court reporters areas. We are not putting in permanent seating for jurors,” Coffee said.

Courtrooms like those on the fourth floor will eventually be built on the fifth and sixth floors.
   
But Judge Coffee reminds everyone, it will take time.

“This will be with us for a while. It will be a while, several more months before we are back fully trying cases in all 10 courtrooms at one time,” he said.

There will still be an issue of where to hold jury selection in the Criminal Justice Center. Judge Coffee says one option may be the building’s auditorium.

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