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Criminal court trials set to begin again but face challenges

Thousands look forward to their day in court
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Posted at 1:53 PM, Mar 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-25 14:53:50-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF)  — The gavel is finally about to fall. Thousands of Tennesseans accused of crimes have not had their day in court because the pandemic canceled all jury trials, but that's now about to change.

However, going back to court now is not without controversy.

The first criminal court trials in months will begin in Metro's Burch Building the first week in April. That means many of the accused -- all innocent until proven guilty -- will finally get their day in court.

But this won't come without challenges.

"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 NewsChannel 5 legal analyst Nick Leonardo.

So, as you might imagine, there is a huge backlog.

And now the Tennessee Supreme Court is giving the green light for trials to resume April 1.

Leonardo said summons are now being sent out to citizens to fill out jury pools. That's actually now happening in court districts across the state.

You soon could be called for jury duty to hear cases in a time of real urgency.

"I would say it's a constitutional crisis of immense proportions -- the kind of which I have never seen in my lifetime," said Leonardo.

Here's how it will work:

Jury pools will now meet in larger rooms and everyone will be required to wear a mask. This is an issue for some lawyers who say it inhibits their ability to chose jurors, since the mask conceals facial expressions -- often part of the selection process.

Then when a trail starts, witnesses must testify live in the courtroom -- no electronic testimony.

"The Supreme Court has ruled that zoom conferences like we are doing here do not satisfy the right of confrontation. The criminally accused have right to confront the witness against them," said Leonardo.

All this in a pandemic and begs the question: What if a lawyer or juror gets COVID? Does everyone have to quarantine? Will there be a mistrial?

There's not doubt there will be challenges, but criminal trials are set to begin the first week in April. They will deal with problems as they come along.

In Nashville, you can typically have up to six or more criminal trials happening at one time. But, they'll begin with only two at a time on the sixth floor of the Birch Building first to see how things go.