JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Because of a surge in reported COVID-19 cases during the holidays, the presiding judge of the Fourth Judicial Circuit has suspended jury trials and in-person court proceedings until Feb. 22.
The Fourth Judicial Circuit includes Duval, Clay and Nassau counties. Any jury trial scheduled for Feb. 22 or after may remain scheduled pending further notice, according to an email.
During the suspension, there will be no in-person proceedings in any courthouse facility. This means families waiting to get justice or find closure will have to wait even longer.
It’s been three years since Ashlee Rucker was killed, and months since her sister, Lisa, says she’s heard of any movement on a court date.
“Not being able to have some kind of closure with the case is, in my opinion, personally, I feel like it’s time to at least get the process started,” she said.
For Lisa Rucker’s family, losing her sister and the back-and-forth with lawyers and courts for years has been mentally taxing. She says she has lived in fear and felt her safety was at risk.
She wishes the trial was handled before COVID-19 happened, but hopes something can be resolved this year.
Despite precautions like plexiglass courtrooms and zoom hearings, Charlie Cofer, Duval County public defender, said there’s no controlling the spread outside of their reach.
“I think in October we started selecting juries again, but just right now with what’s going on in the community, it’s just not feasible,” Cofer said.
He say that Duval County at the end of February 2020 had about 2,900 file felony cases pending. This week, they are at 4,200, making it a 40% in felony cases pending.
Cofer says it’s the rate of positivity in the community causing delays, reducing juror availability and making it harder to resolve cases.
“Everything is more difficult in the criminal justice system,” Cofer said. “Communicating with clients is more difficult because we pretty much are limited to doing that through video conferencing rather than going over to the jail and seeing them in person. Communicating with witnesses is more difficult. Arranging and scheduling depositions of witnesses is incredibly difficult.”
He says although there will be an incredible backlog of cases, he believes the courts will do everything they can to keep everyone involved safe once proceedings resume.