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In-person jury trials could resume in McLennan County next month

Published: Mar. 8, 2021 at 11:18 PM CST
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WACO, Texas (KWTX) - Some McLennan County inmates have been in jail since before the COVID-19 pandemic began awaiting their day in court, however, in-person trials could slowly come back online in April.

“We have to get this done,” said Jon Gimble, District Clerk for McLennan County.

While nothing will be changing safety-wise at the courthouse when the state’s mask mandate is lifted Wednesday as the county is still under an emergency declaration order, officials say the state supreme court has now cleared a path for jury trials to resume, and McLennan County is on that path.

“Last week they put out an order that once we go through a number of hoops, we’ll be able to reopen jury trials,” said Gimble. “We have a handful, probably a half dozen that have been in jail for a few years, and then probably a dozen or more than have been there for close to a year waiting a trial.”

From venues, to space and technology...pretty much every part of the system is having to change in order for justice to return in McLennan County.

“It’s kind of that ‘puzzle moving,’” said Gimble. “The annex courtroom is the only courtroom that meets the restrictions at the courthouse or the annex, all of our normal courtrooms for having a jury trial are just too small.”

The plan is for in-person jury trials to resume, at reduced capacity, in the annex courtroom, which usually holds around 300.

“With COVID restrictions, we’re down to 42 plus the judge, bailiffs and court reporters, so under 50,” said Gimble.

The county has also secured The Extraco Events Center, one of its own properties, to host jury selection, and eventually, in-person trials, too.

The rental agreement for the new building at Extraco begins April 5, however, Gimble says April 19 is a more realistic date to re-start the county’s trial process.

“That first week we’ll just do voire dire there then we’ll come back here (to the annex courtroom) for the trial most likely,” said Gimble. “We’ll also be able to have trials over there, that facility is over 100,000 square feet, it has 30 to 40 foot ceilings, and it has a very modern air-handling system with good filters.”

Gimble says county health officials are impressed with the space for safety purposes.

“One of the great things that was encouraging, both Dr. Verner and other officials who have reviewed our plans, say that they’re ‘above and beyond’ the safety protocols, that we’ve taken people’s safety very seriously,” said Gimble.

The county’s lease, which runs through the rest of the year, will be paid for, in part, with unused juror funds from the past year.

“We could cover at least half of it with unused jury funds.” said Gimble who consulted with an auditor and got a budget amendment put through.

Of the around 300,000 residents in McLennan County, 700 will be receiving a jury summons in the mail once the county’s safety plan gets re-certified by a regional judge and the local judges work out a trial schedule, which Gimble says should be within the next seven to ten days.

He says potential jurors’ medical history and health concerns will be taken into consideration, however, they haven’t had jurors in about a year, and they need people to step up to the plate.

“We opened up for limited jury trials that they never got to participate in last fall because, as we were opening up, environment started to worsen, and health officials advised us not to and then canceled out jury trials for rest of last year,” said Gimble.
“We’ve done a lot of this hoop jumping and planning ahead of time, but once we get our plan re-certified, we’ll be ready to go.”

Newly-elected Judge Thomas West has agreed to be the pilot trial.

“He has a few cases of people who have been sitting in the county jail for an extended period of time, one of them is 1100 days, another is 800, and so the only remedy for these people to find out whether they’re going to be free or have to go to state prison is a jury trial,” said Gimble. “They’ve been patiently waiting, or maybe not so patiently, to get this remedy, and normally without a pandemic and emergency orders, that really would be outside of the normal bounds.”

“Hopefully, maybe by the end of this calendar year, we’ll be able to transition away from this as we get enough vaccinations out there and other mitigations to the current situation,” he said.

“Last week they put out an order that once we go through a number of hoops, we’ll be able to reopen jury trials,” said Gimble. “We have a handful, probably a half dozen that have been in jail for a few years, and then probably a dozen or more than have been there for close to a year waiting a trial.”