Dougherty County Probate Judge Nancy Stephenson. (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

Dougherty County Probate Judge Nancy Stephenson has died after contracting COVID-19 weeks after the virus was apparently introduced into the courthouse by a juror who tested positive for it.

Stephenson, the county’s probate judge for 27 years, tested positive for the virus on March 25 and succumbed to complications associated with it on Wednesday, said Kevin Holder, executive director for the Council of Probate Judges of Georgia.

Stephenson’s husband, John Stephenson, is a Dougherty County state court judge. Holder confirmed that John Stephenson has also tested positive, and is self-quarantined at home as he fights the illness. The couple also has two adult sons.

Holder said the couple was weathering the virus at their home and that, until Wednesday, Nancy Stephenson believed her symptoms weren’t severe enough to warrant hospitalization.

But her fever spiked Wednesday, and she began having trouble breathing, Holder said. She died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.

Holder said she will be buried in a small graveside service, and a public memorial will be held later this year.

The virus appears to have been introduced at the courthouse by a juror who tested positive for the coronavirus and served at a five-day-long murder trial at the courthouse the week of March 9, Holder said. Dougherty County Superior Court Judge Denise Marshall presided over the trial. Dougherty County District Attorney Greg Edwards tried the case. Albany attorney Phil Cannon represented defendant Jazzy Jarrell Huff.

Two more probate judges—Melanie Bell in Newton County and Annie Doris Holder in Calhoun County—also have tested positive with the rapidly spreading respiratory virus, Holder said. Holder was hospitalized with the virus but has since been released and is in quarantine at home.

Bell has been hospitalized for two weeks with the virus after she contracted pneumonia, Holder said. He said she “has turned the corner, fortunately,” although she will likely remain in the hospital another week.

Holder said that Bell emailed him just before she was hospitalized, saying, “Please pray for me. I need it.”

A third probate judge, Jeff Jones in Pulaski County, is self-quarantining at home and awaiting test results after one of his clerks tested positive earlier this week, Holder said.

Treutlin County Probate Judge T.J. Hudson, president of the probate judges’ council, said that Stephenson was “an instrumental part” of the council and “respected among her colleagues, by her staff and the community where she served.”

“Simply put, Judge Stephenson was the best of who we are, not only as a probate judge, but as public servants,” Hudson said. “Judge Stephenson had a first-rate intellect, a quirky sense of humor. But most of all, she had a love for the law, public service and her family.”

Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Ken Hodges, who lives in Albany and knows Stephenson, said he talked to her just three days ago, and she remained in good spirits despite her illness. “I am devastated, as is everyone,” he said. “She was a wonderful, nice, genuine, down-to-earth, humble servant of the people. She was funny, and, my God, we are going to miss her.”

Stephenson died three days after Dougherty County Superior Court Judge Victoria Darrisaw issued an order closing the courthouse. Darrisaw said in her order that she was amending an earlier emergency order that suspended all jury calls and nonessential matters through April 13. In her amended order, Darrisaw said she was closing the courthouse because a number of employees tested positive. “It is no longer feasible to allow the courthouse to remain open to the general public,” she said.

The closure is effective until midnight on May 17, although the court “will continue to address essential functions,” the order said.

Albany has been at the epicenter of an outbreak in south Georgia that has flooded its sole hospital with patients and made it one of the nation’s top hot spots for the virus’ spread.

Albany’s infection rate has consistently placed it among the four top locations in the world for cases per capita with 13 cases per 10,000 people, ranking second only to New York City in the U.S., Scientific American reported Thursday. Albany has a population of about 75,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

A total of 186,101 people were diagnosed with the respiratory illness, also known as the novel coronavirus, as of Wednesday afternoon in the United States, with 3,603 confirmed deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Georgia had 4,748 confirmed cases, 1,013 hospitalized and 154 deaths.

On Thursday, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany reported 685 patients have tested positive for the virus, 33 have died, 91 have recovered, and 1,011 are awaiting results.

On Wednesday, Kevin Chason, chief judge of the South Georgia Judicial Circuit, which includes Calhoun County, declared a judicial emergency after Holder tested positive for the virus. He closed the county courthouse to the general public and directing that essential services be provided online and via telephone. Chason issued the order to shutter Calhoun County Courthouse two weeks after Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton declared a statewide judicial emergency due to the spread of the coronavirus.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct Albany’s population.