Since March, area courts have scaled back dockets, rescheduled hearings, pushed out trials and in Butler County stopped convening a grand jury until June due to coronavirus concerns
But that doesn’t mean arrests are not being made and the judicial process has halted, officials said.
The Ohio Supreme Court has extended the amount of time to litigate a case without waiving rights to a speedy trial. This is for those charged during the pandemic. The 90-day period usually begins at the time of arrest. An additional 80 days has been added by the state’s highest court due to the circumstances, according to Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser.
In Ohio, people must be indicted by a grand jury before being tried on a felony charge that can send them to prison for years. That is not the case for lesser or misdemeanor charges that are handled by municipal and area courts and carry at most a sentence in a local jail for a few months, according to Gmoser.
Grand jurors come from the same pool of registered voters as jurors who hear trials. Grand jurors serve for three months in Butler County.
Nine citizens sit on a grand jury as opposed to 12 in at trial jury. Unlike a criminal trial jury, an indictment is secured when seven of the nine vote for the charge, returning what is know in the legal world as a “true bill.”
It typically takes a few weeks after a case is sent from a lower court for a grand jury to consider that case, unless the prosecutor chooses to present it directly, which happens in a handful of cases.
A Butler County grand jury considered cases through the end of March, but concerns about the logistics of safe social distancing and the age demographics of many in the jury pool put it on hold, Gmoser said.
“We have a situation that we can’t bring grand jurors together without exposing them,” Gmoser said, noting the grand jury room is small and justice calls for more than an abbreviated presentation on a Zoom system. “It is just impossible to protect the grand jurors at this time.”
While prosecutors present cases to the grand jury, judges are in charge of its function, so the decision to suspend grand juries due to the pandemic came from the judges.
Gmoser said a summons is sent to 50 to 70 potential grand jurors at a time. A total of 44 are chosen. Each grand jury impaneled serves a week each of the three months.
While the sheriff’s office, judges and prosecutors are working together to move cases within time limitations, Gmoser said there is no doubt eventually “we are going to get jammed up … We are going to be busy this summer and that is just the way it goes.”
In Warren County, with three common pleas judges, compared to seven in Butler County, grand jury has continued through the pandemic. But it was moved from a designated room to a much larger multi-media room to allow for social distancing, said Prosecutor David Fornshell.
“Everybody is a good 15 to 20 feet away from each other,” he said.
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