Coronavirus concerns slow the local wheels of justice

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WACO, Texas (KWTX) District courts in McLennan County have radically changed the way they do business in the wake of the corona virus outbreak, but they continue to deal daily with criminal cases.

Judge Ralph Strother, in 19th District Court and Judge Matt Johnson, in 54th District Court, both have suspended jury trials because of restrictions on large gatherings.

But orders that limit gatherings to 10 or more technically make it impossible for a 12-member grand jury to meet to review cases that prosecutors submit.

"Actually, we can hold a legal grand jury and get an indictment with only nine members, Johnson said.

The Texas Code of Criminal Procedures requires a vote by "nine, 10, 11 or 12 grand jury members,” to return an indictment, which sends a case to a court for trial.

And in a move to take pressure off the prosecutors and the grand jury, Johnson and Strother extended the time for forcing habeas corpus from 90 to 120 days, which gives the state more time to seek an indictment.

"The Code of Criminal Procedure says anyone can have a hearing, all they have to do is ask for one," Johnson said.

“But it also says we can do such things in an 'exceptional situation' and this, certainly, is an exceptional situation.

One local defense attorney said the issue really is moot because "even if a defendant bonds out (of jail) he still can be indicted even if its six months later."

Hearings are continuing, Johnson said, but now under new rules.

"I'll have two defendants at a time brought to my court, so that two defendants and two lawyers, total of four," then figure the two court reporters, a judge and a couple of bailiffs and the gathering numbers less than 10.

Johnson said he believes Strother will employ a similar structure in his courtroom.

"We're trying to keep doing the jail cases although we're having only limited proceedings," Johnson said.

"We're dealing with the most sensitive and essential ones first."