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COVID case backlogs could lead to the release of dangerous inmates

Posted at 8:57 PM, Jan 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-21 21:57:18-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Right now, if you're a crime victim waiting for justice or a criminal suspect hoping for a quick and speedy trial then you are out of luck.

As of now, the COVID-19 pandemic has set back the schedule of jury trials for more than a year. The backlog is like nothing in U.S. history and it's become a constitutional crisis with no clear solution.

Remember, there are people currently unable to make bond and locked up with no trial in sight. Some may say, well just don't get arrested. But remember the accused are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. And the fact is thousands of suspects locked up or out on bond are in limbo

"Now we are officially a year behind. We have not had a criminal jury trial in this county for what accounts for almost an entire year," said NewsChannel5 legal analyst Nick Leonardo.

Consider Davidson County courts were already backlogged before the pandemic hit often with 18 months or more delays for a jury trial.

Now, Leonardo said the wait may be up to three years from the time of arrest. "I would say it's a constitutional crisis of immense proportions -- the kind of which I have never seen in my lifetime," he said.

Yes, the 6th Amendment guarantees the right to a speedy trial by an "impartial jury." But speedy is a relative term.

Covid-19 slowed things down. It's no one's fault. Still, across the country defendants and victims are filing lawsuits demanding their day in court.

But how do you safely select a jury? "We are a long way from having 300 people in a courtroom to chose from," said Leonardo.

Some courts are looking at selection electronically over zoom. But can you then hold an entire criminal trial over zoom? "The Supreme Court has ruled that zoom conferences like we are doing here do not satisfy the right of confrontation -- the criminally accused to confront the witness."

So until the pandemic improves -- prosecutors and judges face the prospect of releasing some dangerous offenders without bond or even dropping charges.

That's already happening in states like New Mexico, Oklahoma and Oregon. It's not to that point yet here in Tennessee. But crime isn't slowing during the pandemic .. and sooner or later something will give.

For now, the Tennessee Supreme Court has extended its order of no jury trials -- with few exceptions -- until March of this year. At that time, the justices will re-evaluate the safety of holding jury trials.