Board asked to make provisions for social-distanced trials, pay public defenders more in justice court

Part of the July term of Jones County Circuit Court could be at a Jones College building. That was the request Judge Dal Williamson made of the Board of Supervisors at Monday morning’s meeting.

“We’re going to need a place for trials that will allow for social distancing,” he told supervisors.

After meeting with JC President Dr. Jesse Smith, they agreed that the Whitehead Technology Building would be a suitable location when the summer court term in Ellisville begins on July 27 and ends Aug. 14. The first trial is tentatively set for July 29.

The auditorium is large enough for jurors and court officials to spread out and there’s a large side room that could serve as a jury room, Williamson said. State statute says that supervisors can designate a site other than the courthouse to accommodate court proceedings during emergency situations. 

Because of the COVID-19 crisis, courts in other parts of the state have started having trials at larger venues so the pool of potential jurors who are summoned can gather for the jury-picking process, then the jurors can sit at least six feet apart while officials maintain a safe distance, too.

“Dr. Smith has been agreeable with all of this,” Williamson said. 

Summons for jurors were allowed to be sent out starting Monday, according to a state Supreme Court order. Approximately 60-70 trials have been reset since March in Jones County Circuit Court.

“We’re going to see how it works,” Williamson said, adding that he may be back to ask to return to the alternate location for the next Laurel term of court if restrictions are still in place.

Jones County Justice Court Judge Billie Graham also spoke to the board on another matter. Because of changes in the law, public defenders need to appear with suspects who are making their initial appearances in felony cases and suspects who are charged with misdemeanors that can result in jail time. Those public defenders, who make $8,400 per year each, will need more compensation to handle the increased caseload, Graham said.

‘“It’s not something we can wait until budget time to request,” she said. “We’re required to abide by the law.”

The public defenders will likely be needed for eight hours every Wednesday and at least two Thursday’s per month for contested hearings. No specific amount was asked for.

“We request that you make provisions for them,” Graham said.

Board President Johnny Burnett said, “We’ve got to follow the guidelines and get in compliance. We’ll just have to try to come up with the money.”

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