New court procedures were on trial with defendants in South Carolina as courtrooms in two counties tested coronavirus precautions that authorities across the state could use to resume in-person trials.
Since courts closed to the general public in March, counties have managed to chip away at swelling backlogs of postponed cases by doing some simple hearings in person without guests in the courtroom or over video chat services.
But while some states have managed to log a dozen jurors onto video platforms, those cases have often included extensive technical glitches and questions about proper proceedings.
"You just can't move a docket without jury trial ... and I don't see how you could do that online," said 8th Circuit Solicitor David Stumbo, whose office wrapped up the Palmetto State's first criminal trial on Tuesday evening in Laurens County.
Authorities in an Horry County courtroom followed suit, gathering juries to hear over a dozen cases ranging from drug crimes to bank robbery. Most of the defendants ended up pleading guilty, Solicitor Jimmy Richardson said, though one jury did convict one defendant of failing to register as a sex offender.
As they review the solutions that allowed for trials that verged on normalcy, officials who returned to the courtrooms last week hope to help judges and systems across South Carolina reinstate their own practices safely.
Facing an accuser
Several Laurens County residents spent the first week of August scattered across a courtroom, confined to a taped "X" that marked safe distances on the rows of courtroom seats. Families were allowed to sit with each other on Tuesday evening as Lutavious Denard Elmore was found guilty of murder, burglary and possession of a weapon and sent to prison for 55 years.
Elmore, 33, has been in jail since October 2018, when police said he saw his ex-girlfriend with a new man in her bed and broke in to stab 28-year-old Sergio Lindsey several times, killing him.
Before the pandemic, he'd been scheduled for trial in April, but the case was delayed as the COVID-19 pandemic prompted Chief Justice Donald Beatty to order courtrooms statewide to bar the public. In May, when Beatty said courts could reopen as soon as July, Laurens County prepared for Judge Donald Hocker to hear Elmore's case.
"It's difficult to tell a victim they can't face their accuser in court," Stumbo said. "Now (the family) can put the courtroom part of this behind them and do all the other healing."
Beatty visited for a few days to observe the process, Stumbo said, and attorneys from around the state dropped in to watch proceedings.
Tackling the docket
In Horry County, two juries sat through a roster of 15 cases with remarkable speed, 15th Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson said. All but one defendant pleaded guilty to crimes ranging from drug charges to bank robbery.
They wanted to start with less complicated cases so that the expert witnesses who often crowd courtrooms during complex trials wouldn't be necessary, Richardson said.
"I think everyone's trying to study and get ahead of the curve," Richardson said. "You can plan 'til the cows come home, but until you see them in action all of that's part of the learning stage."
Though arrests have fallen and attorneys have managed to handle pleas and preliminary hearings as trials paused, Richardson said it's been harder to strike plea bargains as defendants weigh the likelihood of a speedy trial against the slowing, but still spreading, pandemic.
"If you can't try cases then there's not as much incentive to plea," Richardson said. "A lot of people say, 'I'm not going to do anything until you have me stare down the eyes of 12 jurors.'"
Ronald Hazzard, who became the 15th Circuit's chief public defender this month, filed a motion for continuance, which was denied. He said coronavirus concerns would make it difficult for communities with greater risk of complications to be fully represented in the jury box and impossible for the selected jurors to focus on their task
"A lot of work went into trying to come up with these protocols, and I really appreciate that ... but, as a defense attorney, I'm taking my life into my hands every time we have a trial, and, as a defendant, I'm being forced to come into a situation that is less than optimal for my safety," Hazzard said. "Any time there's a question like that, the defendant's the loser."
Every courthouse in the state has a different layout, budget and docket — and a different community to serve. The state Supreme Court's order allowing trials to resume with masks and distancing will help each one begin a safe return, unique needs are bound to crop up in each circuit.
In Laurens County, for example, witnesses were allowed to identify plastic-bagged pieces of evidence before they took the stand so surfaces could be disinfected between handlings.
Guidance from Laurens County helped the Horry court prepare for minor problems, like when two witnesses had traveled out-of-state and needed to testify by video from another room in the courthouse, Richardson said.
In both counties, jurors were required to keep masks in the courtroom, but allowed more breaks for fresh air. Fewer arrived for selection in Horry than usual, according to Richardson, but those who came were committed to helping the trials go forward.
Questions about the propriety of those solutions may rise through the state Supreme Court, Richardson said, but he's eager to see decisions made in time for other courts to make use of them.
"(We hope to) lead the way in working toward the resumption of normal court operations across South Carolina in the coming months," Stumbo wrote in a statement as trial began.