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McLennan County: Jury summons mailed, in-person trials to resume in November

Published: Oct. 9, 2020 at 2:25 AM CDT
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WACO, Texas (KWTX) - After an eight-month hiatus, in-person jury trials are set to resume next month in McLennan County--for some, that means jury duty.

“It’s (life’s) gotten back to normal in many others ways--this is part of normal," said McLennan County District Clerk Jon Gimble. "And at the other end of the summons, there’s someone accused of a crime that needs someone to listen to the case and give them justice.”

But getting justice to resume under COVID-19 guidelines is an uncharted challenge, Gimble says.

“You talk about a normal three-ring circus, well, we have our five-ring circus of five district courts, this has really just turned everything up on its end," said Gimble.

This month the Texas Supreme Court finally opened up the availability to have in-person trials, and McLennan County officials are jumping through hoops to redesign the jury selection and trial process to make sure it’s legal and safe.

“One of the things we haven’t been able to find is a building stretcher," said Gimble of the county courthouse. “We’re dealing with stone and steel that was erected in 1902, so there’s nothing movable here.”

While picturesque and historical, the courthouse is anything but coronavirus-friendly.

“A lot of these rooms were designed to pack in as many people as you could in the smallest amount of space, because more space costs more money.” said Gimble.

Only the annex courtroom is big enough for a socially-distanced jury trial, and all of the courtrooms are too small for jury selection.

“If we’re going to follow state guidelines, we can’t use a single one of our courtrooms for impaneling," said Gimble.

So for voir dire, they’re going to use the Waco Convention Center.

So far, 1,000 jury summons have been mailed, 500 for the impaneling on Oct. 30--the first one since the Spring and unlike any before.

“It is a little onerous to come down here, we don’t want it to include a risk of illness, so to protect people we will have masks available, I believe the current plan is we have face shields ordered and that will be required," said Gimble.

A normal jury pool would consist of about 300 people in a room: now it will be a socially-distanced 80 people (with staff included), and for the first time, along with the regular juror questionnaire, the summons will include a health questionnaire to pre-screen potential jurors ahead of time.

“Normally that wouldn’t get you out of jury service, just a risk to your health, but because of the concerns and the risks associated with COVID, that’s going to be something that we consider," said Gimble.

Gimble says they’re not going to gamble with people’s health, but justice can no longer wait.

“We’re trying to maintain the healthiest environment that we can for everyone," said Gimble. -"At the end of the day, we’re dealing with serious legal matters, and the reason why we’re bringing you to court is because they can’t be disposed of otherwise."

They’re going to attempt to get two jury panels seated on Oct. 30: one for the 54th District Court and one for a county court at law (which hasn’t yet been decided), Gimble says.

The 19th District Court will take the next impaneling on Nov. 9 for a trial to follow.

“The felony courts are taking precedence,” said Gimble. “We’re kind of treating this as a four-week trial ‘trial period.’”

If everything goes well, Gimble says they could potentially schedule jury service for two more weeks before Christmas.

It will be up to the judges to prioritize their dockets and pick their first trials, however, officials say they’ll be looking at cases with longer jail stays.

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