McLennan County: Jury trials likely to resume in October

Published: Sep. 11, 2020 at 4:28 AM CDT
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WACO, Texas (KWTX) - In-person jury trials could resume in Waco as early as next month under certain COVID-19 restrictions, McLennan County officials say.

County officials say getting the trial system back up and running won’t be easy due to the pandemic, however, they also say the longer it takes, the more expensive and dangerous it could be to the public.

“It’s very sensitive, it’s very complex," said County Judge Scott Felton. “The judicial process is very important, and we have been kind of sidelined on that since March, it’s important citizens get a fair trial and justice is done."

The county submitted a COVID-19 operating plan to the Office of Court Administration in June to be able to perform some hearings.

“One of the issues when you go through this process, you want to be able to have a trial that’s fair and does not get appealed because they didn’t think the health protocols were met," said Felton.

Now officials are coming up with a revised health and safety plan to resume jury trials as the OCA hasn’t allowed them to hold any since March 8, Felton says.

“We have a severe backlog of trials that need to happen, some folks are sitting in jail or out on bond and we need to get it back moving again," said Felton. “If we don’t, it would build up higher jail population or on people out bond that pose some risk to community.”

“Those things need to be dealt with and people who feel like they’re innocent need to have an opportunity to prove it,” he said.

The county will have to meet certain OCA guidelines in addition to the Governor’s orders and local health district rules, but before anything gets underway, the county needs to have an emergency order issued by the Supreme Court of Texas which would allow jury trials to resume under certain conditions.

“It would be expensive to keep it going the way it is, attorneys are waiting to defend or prosecute, inmates are waiting for trial and it costs for their feeding and care, we’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars," said Felton. "We need to get it moving.”

Jail officials say they’ve managed to keep some of the inmate population down by holding virtual hearings.

“We’ve worked very closely with the courts to continue court cases on those wishing to plea their cases, we’re conducting those type of cases virtually from inside the jail," said McLennan County Jail Administrator Maj. Ricky Armstrong. "But I do think it’s important to get the courts back into operation for those that are wanting to take their case to trial so they may receive their due process.”

County court and health officials say the courthouse itself poses some risks due to it’s limited size, old age and ventilation.

“As for the trials themselves, the initial plan is the two district judges would alternate weeks in the one usable courtroom of the courthouse," said Felton. “(We’re) Also taking into consideration public safety on criminal trials as well, getting people that are currently jailed in and out of the courtrooms,”

District Clerk Jon Gimble said they were looking into finding an off-site location secure enough to hold criminal trials, which he also said would likely be first priority because of their constitutional nature.

Officials said once the wrinkles were ironed out they could start expanding trials to county courts then civil courts.

As for voir dire, Felton says they’re looking at holding jury calls (where up to 300 potential jurors are present for jury selection and assignment) at a larger, off-site location like the Waco Convention Center.

The county is looking at getting plexi glass and face shields for jurors--they will also have alternates in case one gets sick, however, Felton says all jurors will be socially distanced and everyone involved in a court proceeding would have to be screened and have their temperature taken every day.

“We are going to do everything we can possible to make sure people are safe," said Felton.

Felton says they need to secure the community’s trust to do this successfully.

“(One of our biggest challenges is to) Make sure that we convince the public that our process is safe, and people when they get a jury notice will show up and offer to serve on these juries," said Felton.

Gimble believes they’ll have a good participation rate.

“When we sent out grand jury summons in June, we had about the same rate of return as before COVID hit, so I think we’ll have a good rate,” said Gimble

Punishments for people who don’t show up or are defiant include fines and jail time.

Gimble said people had been fined in the past.

Jurors receive $40 per day.

Citizens could start getting summoned as early as Oct 5 or Oct. 12.

However, some officials say it realistically won’t be until later in October because they can’t legally mail jury summons' until after the Supreme Court of Texas issues the county’s emergency order, and they need extra time to give more notice to potential jurors as a result of slower mail service.

As of Thursday, an order had not been received.

Gimble says operating a court system under COVID-19 is a learning curve and a process that won’t happen overnight.

“We’re trying to do it in a way that’s fair to everyone and brings about a good trail result," said Gimble.

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