Grand Jury Got Back To Work Early As COVID Cases Began To Drop

Friday, April 30, 2021

The two Hamilton County Grand Juries got back to work early as COVID cases began to lower.

Hugh Moore, who heads the Concurrent Grand Jury, said the panel has completed a second term while fully complying with safety rules.

He said the new set-up works well except the jury had problems seeing video evidence from witnesses. He asked that the problem be corrected.

Here is the report of the Concurrent Grand Jury: 

In compliance with Rule 6(e)(7), Tennessee Rules of Criminal Procedure, the Hamilton County Concurrent Grand Jury for the January - April Term, 2021, submits its Report, as follows:

Concurrent Grand Jury Adapts to COVID-19

Hamilton County's two Grand Juries were the first judicial entities in the County to resume in-person sessions after the March, 2020 shutdown of Courts due to the restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is the second Term during which the Grand Juries have continued to convene, regularly and in-person, while fully in compliance with the restrictions and precautions related to the pandemic. This Concurrent Grand Jury met for a somewhat abbreviated Term of five two-day sessions.

The Office of the Circuit Court Clerk, Larry Henry, and Shawn Johnson, Criminal Justice Public Safety Coordinator, together with the Hamilton County Information Technology team, worked hard to create a new room for the Grand Jury, in the County's MLK Building. Jurors sat at separate tables, and wore masks throughout the daily sessions. All witnesses appeared via an audio/video link with the regular Grand Jury room, in the Courts Building. Everyone whose work and innovative ideas made this new set-up work is due a great deal of thanks.

But one major issue remains with the new arrangement. The Jury cannot effectively see video evidence offered by witnesses. We understand that it is technically possible for there to be a link, via laptop, that would permit the Jury to view video evidence. The Jury has previously requested, and requests again, that if such a link can be established, using an existing laptop, and at no expense to the County, that the video evidence link be ready for the next Grand Jury sessions, which begin on May 17, 2021. If this link cannot be established, then it is the recommendation of this Jury that any witness presenting any evidence other than testimony to the Jury, appear in person before the Jury in the MLK Building.

Cases Presented:

The Concurrent Grand Jury met for five two-day sessions. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic the Jury was not able to conduct its usual inspections of the Hamilton County Jail, the Silverdale Correctional Facility, or the Juvenile Court and Facility.

During this shortened term, approximately 279 cases were presented to the Concurrent Grand Jury. The Concurrent Grand Jury returned 215 true bills, 25 no bills, and 39 presentments.

As in the past, on some days comparatively few law enforcement officers appeared to present their cases. As a result, the Jury would adjourn for lunch before 11:00 am, and then for the day between 1:00 pm and 2:00 pm. The Jury recognizes the many problems inherent in scheduling these appearances (shift schedules, court appearances, paperwork issues, vacations, etc.), but questions whether some improvements might be made, and through those improvements the time of the Jurors be more efficiently used. Apparently there are many cases ready for presentation, and the Grand Jury is always ready to hear them.

Several of the presenting law enforcement agencies allow officers to present cases worked by other officers, which is fully permissible under the law. The Chattanooga Police Department, through Sgt. April Bolton, does particularly well with this method of presentation. Sgt. Bolton will frequently present as many as 5-10 cases at a time, which allows other CPD officers to maintain their regular schedules.

Presentations from Judges and others:

Three Hamilton County Judges took time out of their busy calendars to meet with and take questions from the Jury (Judges Greenholtz, Poole, and McVeagh). The judges' presentations were universally well received and appreciated by the Jury. Most Grand Jurors have no prior experience or familiarity with the criminal justice system. These talks enabled the Jurors to understand where their work fits in the system, and how vital their role is as impartial citizen gatekeepers to the Criminal Courts.

Respect for law enforcement:

During their abbreviated term of service the jurors heard from scores of local law enforcement officers, from not only the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office and the Chattanooga Police Department, but also from several of the suburban municipal departments, Tennessee State Troopers, and others. As with other Juries, these Jurors learned first-hand what these public servants face on a daily basis, and as a result, the Jurors' respect for the service of these law enforcement officers was strengthened. Each of these officers is commended by the Concurrent Grand Jury for their dedication, hard work, and skill.



Silverdale Detention Center:

No inspection was possible.

Hamilton County Juvenile Court:

No inspection was possible.

Hamilton County Jail:

No inspection was possible.



COMMENTS FROM GRAND JURORS

My experience serving on the jury panel was a good one. I gained a greater awareness of and appreciation for the judicial system, legal system, and law enforcement. I appreciated hearing the judge indicate that the pandemic had led to some informality in the proceedings. I picked that up, as well, within the jury panel. I think some instruction ahead of time could be useful. For instance clarifying expectations around formality, since it is held outside of the courtroom. I noticed some jurors being very relaxed, like wearing jeans, and calling other members of the jury things like sweetie and honey, even in the actual "courtroom" so to speak. I know it's a part of the Southern culture, but to me it seemed disrespectful of the context or not having the appropriate formality. A bit too relaxed for a court of law, it seemed to me. I think it could help to clarify at the start that there is still a level of formality expected and instructions on addressing the officers by their titles as well as the respective jurors and members from other roles involved. I know some may not like the formality, but to me it speaks to the importance of the task at hand and helps keep people focused and engaged in the task at hand.

I have a background in working where structure and formality was a major emphasis. So in part I am viewing the formality as important because I have seen some examples of what can happen when lines are crossed in both the professional setting and other arenas.

I hope that makes sense! Overall my experience was very good. I learned a lot about the court system and about trials and legal proceedings. I would love to sit in on a courtroom experience sometime. Thank you for having guest speakers, as well. That was very interesting to hear about that perspective. I previously had fear around the topic of law enforcement and court proceedings. This experience helped me see that those in leadership in this arena are truly providing a service to the community. That makes me grateful for them and the jobs they are doing. I believe I grew in my perspective by having this experience. In other words, I think perhaps God allowed me to have this experience because He knew I needed to heal in the way I view the court system, legal proceedings, and law enforcement. I think this experience has done that for me. Of course I know it's not perfect; any of it, but I needed this experience to challenge my pre-existing views.

 

Conclusion:

The Jury wishes to extend its thanks to Assistant District Attorneys Bill West and Jerry Sloan who ably and efficiently presented the State's cases, and explained applicable law. The Jury appreciated the always pleasant and polite assistance provided by Sgt. Jeff Reardon, Sgt. April Bolton, and by Don Klasing who scheduled the appearance of witnesses. Larry Henry and his staff in the Circuit Court Clerk's Office (Margo McConnell) supported the Jury in every way.

 

 


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