DISTRICT ATTORNEY Joe Mulholland introduces secure video conferencing tool.
With Georgia courts operating under judicial emergency guidelines, the South Georgia Judicial Circuit is turning to an online resource to help move at least some cases along. District Attorney Joe Mulholland says he worked with Superior Court Judges J. Kevin Chason and Heather Lanier to find what he calls a secure video conferencing tool that is now being used for some court proceedings, a step he says is ahead of other judicial circuits in the state.
“We wanted to do this so we don’t have a backlog, we do save money and don’t put anyone in danger,” says Mulholland.
The prosecutor for Grady, Decatur, Mitchell, Baker and Calhoun counties says his office normally handles approximately 800 cases per year, excluding juvenile cases. He says canceling court procedures for three months could have them behind by several hundred cases.
The coronavirus prompted Georgia’s Chief Justice Harold Melton to implement a judicial emergency in mid-March that allows courts to handle only critical and essential court services. Originally set to expire May 13, Justice Melton extended the judicial emergency declaration to June 12. Meanwhile, he urged courts to develop plans for restoring non-critical operations that could be conducted remotely by videoconferencing or by maintaining adherence to public health guidelines.
Using the video conferencing application StarLeaf for the last two weeks, the South Georgia Judicial Circuit has been able to hold bond hearings, probation revocations, motions and other hearings, Mulholland says. Thursday, he says, they took 20 pleas in Grady County, none felony pleas.
Mulholland says he purchased special equipment to handle the application for superior court judges, courtrooms, his office, state court judges, magistrates and probate judges.
The judges “invite participants via email, the jail brings the defendant to the courtroom. Everyone (participating) can see him and he can see everyone,” Mulholland explains. Witnesses testify remotely either from a location of their choice or the district attorney’s office.
The outcome of working online during the age of coronavirus these last few weeks, according to Mulholland, is that any backlog of cases that did exist is now gone. “It’s shocking how well it’s worked,” he says.
Although Mulholland says he expects the tool will be used even after social distancing is no longer a requirement, he says most judicial proceedings will move back to the courtroom.
“Obviously, the courts would prefer in-person, but I don’t see it going away anytime soon. It won’t work for jury trials, though, possibly for the Grand Jury,” he says.