Justice delayed: Alabama’s court system bogged down with COVID jury trial backlog

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This is a CBS 42 Your Voice Your Station report

October 02 2021 06:00 pm

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Latrice Parler is still waiting for her day in court to learn the fate of the man accused of reckless murder in the deaths of her daughters Jayla Parler and Niomi James. The girls were 13 and 11 years old when they were killed in a car crash in Tuscaloosa County on June 6, 2016.

Jayla Parler (left) and Niomi James (right) (Photo courtesy of Latrice Parler)

Former astronaut James Halsell has been out of jail on bond since the night of the crash. His attorneys contend he had an adverse reaction to sleeping medication. Telling CBS 42 in part in a statement from his Attorney James Sturdivant, “While Colonel Halsell deeply regrets the tragedy this incident created, he is innocent of the charge that is being brought against him by the Tuscaloosa County District Attorney’s Office.” Click here to read the full statement.

CBS 42 News reported on the number of times the case had been delayed back in November 2019. The case sat with no action on the court’s docket for two years in 2017. The closest the case has come to a jury trial was in June 2020 when the judge set a date for Sept. 14, 2020—the year that the COVID-19 pandemic caused unprecedented changes to all aspects of life. The courts were no exception.

In March, the Alabama Supreme Court issued a series of “COVID-19 Pandemic Emergency Responses,” suspending in-person court proceedings in the state. In April, another order suspended all juror summons prior to July 1, 2020. And in May, jury trials were suspended until Sept. 14, 2020, the same day Halsell was supposed to appear for trial in a Tuscaloosa County courtroom. In this case, the pandemic thwarted justice.

James Halsell (center) walking to a court hearing in Tuscaloosa County alongside his attorney James Sturdivant (left) (CBS 42)

CBS 42 reached out to James Halsell’s attorney for comment on the delays in the jury trial but has yet to receive a response. That’s been frustrating for Latrice Parler, who is still waiting to learn when this case will go to trial.

“It’s been pushed back so many times now,” Paler lamented. “…how long are we going to be using COVID now as an excuse?”

According to the National Center for State Courts, restricting or ending jury trials is among five of the most common efforts to combat coronavirus and keep the wheels of justice churning. Tuscaloosa County District Attorney Hayes Webb said his office closed their February docket because 12 employees were in quarantine. Webb said court last took place in December.

“We had October, November, December,” Webb recalled. “The January docket was cancelled.”

But, other work, he said, is going on for his office.

“Cases are moving, just not going to trial,” he explained. “We’re still having dockets. There are still hearings. We are still meeting with victims. We’re still meeting with witnesses about cases—on a limited basis—but we are still meeting.”

Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr said his court has not seen any criminal jury trials since the pandemic closed the courts in 2020.

Jayla Parler (left) and Niomi James (right) dressed up for Halloween (Photo courtesy of Latrice Parler)

“We have tried our best in conjunction with criminal judges here to make sure that all the rest of the proceedings, whether it’s pre-trials or some kind of suppressions hearings, or some kind of plea bargain regarding settling cases,” Carr said. “These are things we are trying to do via Zoom.”

The decision to schedule trials is left to the presiding judges in each county. In consultation with the the Alabama Department of Public Health, the judges make decisions based on the community’s coronavirus situation.

The last order issued by the Alabama Supreme Court regarding the COVID-19 Pandemic Emergency Response was a couple of months ago on Dec. 21. It extended orders pertaining to workers compensations cases and remote testimony until April 30, 2021. The Unified Judicial System of Alabama posted that it is “following recommended guidelines from public health officials and recommended preparedness guidance.”

Both of the district attorneys CBS 42 interviewed for this story said Jefferson and Tuscaloosa counties are facing a huge backlog of cases as a result of the pandemic.

“Our Presiding Judge French and Judge Streety, who is the presiding judge in the criminal division and the rest of the judges here, they are all working hard in conjunction with me, the clerk of the court…all of us are just trying to figure out this new normal, to figure out what is safe for us to do,” Carr said. “But at the same time, [we’re] trying to figure out how we can allow victims of crime to have their day in court [as well as] people who are accused of crime…”

For Latrice Parler, that’s paramount.

“As far as Mr. Halsell goes, I’m sure that he knows this isn’t something easy for me or my family, and we would really like to speed things up,” Parler said. “I know we aren’t the only ones going through something terrible at this time, but this is still a burden on top of other burdens for us. And if there was just anyway for us to speed this up, we would appreciate it, because we can’t get to the next level of our lives with this anticipation.”

The Tuscaloosa District Attorney Hays Webb told CBS 42 he could not comment on any specific case but said, “I think it’s unfortunate that we have the delay and the backlog we have, absent a pandemic. I don’t think cases—whether from the victim or defendant perspective—should linger four years or whatever. I’m glad to be able to speak on behalf of the office. I’m glad that you have this interest in the criminal justice system. I think it’s important that people recognize what it is we are doing, not only in the court house, but…out in the community.”

Alabama has no statewide order prohibiting jury trials, according to the National Center for State Courts (NCSC). Currently, NCSC is examining the effectiveness of virtual hearings on child welfare courts . The Annie E. Casey Foundation and Casey Family Programs funded the study.

How retired judges might help alleviate Alabama’s overwhelmed court system

By CBS 42’s Landon Wexler

As CBS 42 Anchor Sherri Jackson’s story above explains, hundreds of court cases across Alabama have been put on hold since the start of the pandemic. Using technology like Zoom conferencing, the state’s court system has been able to address 92,000 cases since last March, while jury trials have largely been placed on hold. State judiciary leaders have also been working on a bill to allow retired judges to help with the backlog.

According to Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Parker, there are approximately 1,900 criminal jury trials and 600 civil jury trials pending in the Central Alabama area. That includes counties as southwest as Hale and as northeast as Cherokee. Parker, along with Judge Langford Floyd of Baldwin County, were appointed to assist with the state’s backlog. They’ve introduced a bill, House Bill 109, that would permit retired judges to return to work.

“It’s called the interim judges bill,” Parker said of the bill, which unanimously passed (101-0) the state House of Representatives. The bill permits courts “to bring back retired judges, allow them to retain their retirement pay, and get paid the quarter of the salary of a circuit judge in order to be able to handle this backlog.” 

Parker said the bill’s passage is especially important, because Alabama is down about 21 judges. In an effort to combat this setback at the start of the pandemic, Alabama expeditiously systematized virtual court hearings, emerging as an early adopter of the practice.

“We were the first system in the nation to install Zoom on the laptops and desktops of the judges,” Parker said. “That has been a way to keep the courts running.”

CBS 42’s Landon Wexler spoke with officials from Etowah, Walker, and Cherokee counties—each of which use Zoom conferencing to continue operations. Other county officials did not respond to CBS 42’s request for an interview at the time of this article’s publishing. Below is an in-depth look at court operations in each of the aforementioned counties.

Etowah County

According to Etowah County Presiding Circuit Judge William Ogletree and Circuit Judge George Day, their county courts transitioned to Zoom hearings for qualified cases at the height of the pandemic.

The county will begin holding criminal trials for domestic, juvenile, and traffic for both the district and circuit levels on Feb. 22, Ogletree said. Then, they’ll begin addressing “constitutionally mandated” aspects of the justice system, like criminal cases, discoveries, and pleas with speedy trials.

Etowah County courts plan to resume civil trials in mid-March. Both judges heaped praise upon state leaders and those appointed—Alabama Chief Justice Tom Parker and Judge Lankford Floyd of Baldwin County—to help bring the Alabama court system up to speed.

Walker County

County clerk Susan Odom tells CBS 42 that as the pandemic surged, so did Walker County’s case backlog. County judges adapted to using Zoom conference calls to hold hearings. At this time, the county is caught up with traffic hearings, she said. 

Jury trials have been put on hold to follow CDC social distancing guidelines. Since the pandemic, there has only been one jury trial, which took place at Jasper Civic Center.

Cherokee County

According to Judge Jeremy Taylor of Cherokee County, there were very few, if any, cases delayed as a direct result of the pandemic. 


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