JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Much like the rest of the country, Jacksonville’s justice system has struggled to function during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
At the beginning of the pandemic, courtrooms closed. The Florida Supreme Court suspended jury trials– and inmates' constitutional rights to demand a speedy trial within five months was halted.
Then, in June, COVID-19 became a problem inside the Duval County Pre-Trial Detention Facility.
Over a four-month span, 240 corrections officers working at Jacksonville’s pre-trial detention facility tested positive for the coronavirus, and more than 434 inmates were found to be infected, records obtained by the News4Jax I-TEAM show.
At the start of the outbreak, jail commissary functions were suspended for a time because one of the workers tested positive. The Chief of the Jails Division also expressed concern over masks becoming degraded and ineffective after being laundered multiple times, jail records show.
The State Attorney’s Office worked to reevaluate sentencing and create offers for inmates facing non-violent felony and misdemeanor charges, facilitating the release of more than 500 inmates in order to keep the jail population down during the pandemic.
But, others accused of more serious crimes, unable to afford bail and unable to present their case to a jury, were stuck until jury trials resume.
“All of us who are practicing here have had clients who have been in the Duval County jail and have in essence been stuck there,” said Jacksonville attorney Gene Nichols. “We know about the [inmates] who have COVID within the jail. We know about all the corrections officers who have it. So, what’s happening is as families are reaching out to their lawyers trying to get out of the jail, because for some of them there is no end in sight.”
The end of the suspension on jury trials could be near.
In an email, public defender Charlie Cofer said the Chief Judge Mark Mahon has directed the clerk’s office to begin sending out jury summons for the week of Oct. 5 to impanel a grand jury. A grand jury hasn’t been convened since the pandemic began in March but is required in order to charge first-degree murder and other offenses.
Emails to Judge Mahon’s office were not immediately returned, but Cofer says the chief judge anticipates bringing in jurors and starting to have felony trials following the week of Oct. 5.
The largest courtroom is expected to be used for jury selection to allow for social distancing.