MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – The Mobile County court system hit a milestone of sorts this week with the first murder trial of the year.
Prosecutors welcomed that – along with a robbery conviction Wednesday in a case that carries a mandatory life-without-parole sentence. But the Mobile County District Attorney’s Office said the cases tried since jury trials resumed March 1 have done little to whittle away a backlog of some 10,000 cases.
And prosecutors and the judges remain at odds over how fast to return to pre-pandemic norms.
“The way that the conditions that we’re forced to try these cases under, we’re just not able to get the volume of jury trials going that we need in order to chip into that backlog that happened during the COVID shutdown,” said Mobile County Chief Assistant District Attorney Keith Blackwood.
The murder trial ended with a guilty verdict Tuesday against LaDerrick Hopson. Jurors determined his fatally shot a man in 2018 at a Whistler gas station. Wednesday’s robbery defendant was John Horn, whose conviction brought a mandatory sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole because of seven prior felony conditions.
The COVID-19 pandemic has wrought havoc with the court schedule for more than 12 months. Along with the rest of state, Mobile County courts shut down shortly after the virus came to America last year. Trials resumed, with restrictions in September.
But with cases surging around the Christmas holidays, Mobile County Presiding Circuit Judge Michael Youngpeter ordered a halt again in January.
Since March 1, the court has been holding trials, but only two each week are trying criminal cases. That’s half of normal.
And the trial process is more cumbersome. Jurors assemble at the Mobile Civic Center and then come up in groups to be selected for specific trials.
During those trials, jurors are spread throughout the courtroom instead of in the jury box. Spectators watch on a video screen from a different courtroom.
“It’s just a lot to juggle,” Blackwood said. “And then with the jury at your back, unable to see witnesses’ faces and juries’ faces, it’s really, you know, there’s some hurdles that we have to overcome to try cases under these conditions.”
Blackwood said one murder case that was slated for this term had to be postponed after Circuit Judge Ben Brooks realized on Monday that there was an open mic in the jury assembly room where potential jurors had gathered for jury selection. That mic transmitted a conversation between the prosecutor and defense lawyer that only the judge was meant to hear.
“All of our argument were being broadcast to the jurors,” he said.
Brooks reset the trial for May.
It was the third hitch in the trial of Peter Gales, accused of killing his girlfriend in 2017. In the same case last week, one of the jurors on the panel ran into a member of the victim’s family during a break and realized they knew each other. The panel was much smaller because the judge dismissed everyone who watches “The First 48,” a true crime show that featured the case.
Youngpeter said he hopes to resume a normal jury schedule – with jurors in the jury box – this fall. In the meantime, he said, the court is adding trials to the schedule in July and August when trials usually go on hiatus.
“We specifically limited to criminal cases to try to catch up our criminal backlog, but we feel like we’re making a dent in it, as it is now,” he told FOX10 News. “And we should be – again, the plan is to be full speed ahead by this fall.”
Blackwood said the summer trials will help. And he said prosecutors have been able to leverage more guilty please since trials resumed on a limited basis. But he said.
“It’s really gonna take some time to get back to a normal backlog,” he said. “I would say two to three years.”