Law360 (September 29, 2020, 10:37 PM EDT) -- As coronavirus levels stay high in Georgia, the federal district that includes Atlanta said Tuesday it will hold no jury trials before next year, including high-profile showdowns like the $400 million kickbacks case against two former Tenet Healthcare Corp. executives.
Chief U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of Georgia Thomas Thrash said in an order posted Tuesday that the state is not a safe location for jury trials in the near term.
"Georgia now ranks fourth in the United States in total cases behind only California, Florida, and Texas," Judge Thrash wrote. "While declining from the extreme highs experienced in July, the percentage of those tested for COVID-19 who test positive still exceeds eight percent, again among the highest positivity rates nationally."
"Emergency conditions have prevented defense counsel from meeting with their in-custody clients and have severely limited communications with those clients in general. Capabilities provided by technology, while helpful, are inadequate to offset the impediments currently confronted by counsel," the judge said.
The order doesn't apply to grand juries, which can continue.
It also doesn't apply to state courts, which are currently under an emergency judicial order set to expire Oct. 10.
One high-profile case that had been nearing the point of trial before the district's first emergency coronavirus halt, ordered March 16, is a criminal case against two former Tenet executives accused of taking $400 million in kickbacks.
John Holland, a former vice president at Tenet, William Moore, a former CEO at a Tenet hospital in Georgia, and Edmundo Cota, the former CEO of prenatal clinic Clinica, are charged with a kickback scheme where Clinica was paid to send patients to give birth at Tenet hospitals, allegedly netting Tenet $400 million in Medicare reimbursements.
Moore lawyer Brian McEvoy of Polsinelli PC told Law360 on Tuesday night that the continued moratorium "is an unfortunate delay for many defendants caused by unprecedented circumstances."
And Cota lawyer Jay Strongwater of Strongwater & Associates called the delay "unavoidable."
"You cannot ask the public to sit with others they've never met under the current circumstances," Strongwater said. But he said the case concerned events and behavior dating back to 2000. "It will be tough to ask jurors to recall what Atlanta was like that many years ago," he said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment.
Other states and districts are similarly struggling with the conflict between the need for public safety and the need for the continued administration of justice.
The Western District of Texas is still under a jury trial moratorium most recently extended last week.
But the order left room for division judges to make their own calls, and at least one division judge, in Waco, has decided to open back up starting Oct. 1, the date set for jury selection in a high-profile case against Roku by MV3 Partners LLC over streaming media patents.
--Additional reporting by Rosie Manins, Kevin Penton and Hannah Albarazi. Editing by Emily Kokoll.
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