Some attorneys worry about continued suspension of in-person jury trials in SC

Updated: Feb. 5, 2021 at 7:20 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The pandemic has caused unprecedented changes to the South Carolina’s court system as most in-person proceedings, like jury trials, remain suspended under an order from the state Supreme Court.

However, the continued delay has some attorneys concerned about what this will mean for their clients who are yearning for justice and closure.

“They are forced to live with this hanging over their head causing them all sorts of worry and stress,” attorney Mark Bringardner said. “They don’t know what the outcome’s going to be, and they don’t even know when there will be an outcome.”

The pandemic has left many people in limbo within the state’s court system, and Bringardner is worried it has given an advantage to some.

“Court closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic have provided some assistance to certain parties who are incentivized not to settle their cases for one reason or another. They are more than happy to use the COVID excuse not to participate actively in a case.” Bringardner said. “If a party has no willingness to comply and no deadline to comply with, it can serve their interest, if that is their goal.”

Others worry the suspension has increased the court system’s backlog of cases.

“There has already been an enormous backlog in the docket. I think it just hasn’t been brought to the public attention until now,” criminal reform advocate Allie Menegakis said. “Before COVID, the average wait time for a jury trial was over two years and sometimes it took more than a month to get a bond motion to be reconsidered or get something on the docket.”

Menegakis is the founder of SC4CJR, a non-profit organization working to promote holistic criminal justice reform. She said the pandemic has exposed some of the critical flaws that already existed within South Carolina’s courts.

“Here, we don’t have any kind of time limit, so there’s no requirement for the state to bring a case to trial within any amount of time,” Menegakis said. “I think that really effects the human dignity of defendants…and that affects every one involved including family members and the alleged victims in these cases.”

All they can really do now is wait until the SC Supreme Court lifts its order.

The latest version of the order came down from the state’s chief justice in January.

“I find that since March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has required unprecedented changes to ordinary court operations throughout the state. These changes have impacted not only judges, attorneys, and court staff, but also those who use the courts,” SC Chief Justice Donald Beatty said.

“I further find that in light of the ongoing increase in COVID-19 cases throughout South Carolina, and the expectation by the medical community and experts that the number of positive cases will continue to increase in the near future, it is prudent to once again make changes to the operations of the circuit, family, probate, and master-in-equity courts for the protection of those who work within the courts, as well as those who use the courts,” Beatty said. “Based on the foregoing, all in-person proceedings statewide beginning on or after January 11, 2021 are hereby suspended until further Order of the Chief Justice.”

The suspension does not mean the courts are closed.

Some are using virtual technology to still do some business, and there are exceptions to the suspension for things like bond hearings and other emergency matters.

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