CUERO – The Crossroads’ first jury trial of the pandemic was declared a mistrial after a prospective juror who had not exhibited any symptoms found out she had tested positive for COVID-19 during the jury panel’s lunch break.
DeWitt County officials had been preparing for the 24th district’s first trial since March for weeks. Extra jurors were summoned. Seats in the courtroom’s gallery and balcony were marked off with orange string. Sheriff’s deputies stood at the courthouse doors to question jurors about symptoms and viral exposure, administer temperature checks and dole out hand sanitizer. Deputy clerks handed out clear plastic face shields to every prospective juror.
It took just hours for those plans to unravel after juror 112, an employee at a local nursing home, received the result from a rapid COVID-19 test she’d taken that morning: positive. The prosecution quickly moved for a mistrial, and the motion was granted by Judge Jack Marr, who called the jury panel in to dismiss them.
“Every precaution was taken,” said Marr, who was wearing his robes along with a light-blue mask, after the courtroom had emptied. “It was bizarre that it occurred the way it did.”
The would-be jurors left with their clear plastic face shields in hand: a souvenir from a trial that would have been historic had COVID-19 not interfered.
“We do have constitutional rights at stake, but a speedy trial has to be balanced with public health,” said defense attorney Micah Hatley. “We were excited to get it started and get this trial going, but we certainly understand the court’s ruling.”
Hatley’s client, Larry Priest, was arrested after he allegedly drove his vehicle at a DeWitt County sheriff’s deputy and a state trooper in July 2019. He was charged with two counts of aggravated assault against a public servant and two counts of evading arrest.
The trial has been rescheduled for Oct. 19.
Jury trials ground to a halt after Texas courts first closed in early March. While many attorneys and judges are working virtually, convening a jury presented a vast logistical challenge for the state’s legal system.
In 2019, Texas judges presided over an average of 186 jury trials per week. But until this week, only 25 jury trials had been completed statewide since March, said David Slayton, administrative director of the Office of Court Administration, the judicial branch agency tasked with providing reopening guidelines for Texas courts.
In late May, the Texas Supreme Court issued an emergency order suspending all jury trials until Aug. 1, except for a limited number of experimental trials conducted with oversight from Office of Court Administration. That order has been extended twice, first to Sept. 1 and then to Oct. 1.
With trials delayed, Marr said, fewer defendants are seeking plea deals. As a result, cases have been piling up on his desk. The judge typically processes 70 to 80 cases a month, but his docket has swelled to about 180 during the pandemic, he said.
“If there is no end date on a trial, where a defendant knows (he’s) going to have to go to trial before a jury, then there’s no incentive for many of those people to actively participate in plea negotiations with the district attorney,” Marr said.
Jury trials are relatively rare, Slayton said, but the right to one is integral to Texas’ legal system.
“While only about half of 1% of all cases in Texas are disposed of by jury trial, it is the basis of our system,” Slayton said. “At the end of the day, people have a right to go to jury trial, and we want to make sure they have that opportunity.”
Office of Court Administration has been working with local courts to establish safety guidelines and get the jury system back up and running for months, with the first jury trial held June 18 in Bowie County.
Jury selection is the toughest part of the process, Slayton said.
DeWitt County is one of the few courthouses in the state large enough to conduct a socially distanced jury selection, said Slayton. Some courts have resorted to holding trials in gymnasiums, auditoriums and civic centers. On Monday, the 61 prospective jurors sat with two empty chairs between them, filling the gallery to capacity.
District clerk Esther Ruiz sent out 250 jury summons for Monday’s trial, 25 more than usual, but the number who showed was still lower than the norm, she said.
After the jury panel was seated, Marr told its members they were “participating in a historic moment here today for this district” and instructed them to speak loudly and clearly.
“This is going to be an exercise in patience,” he said.
Hatley and the prosecutor, assistant district attorney Carrie Moy, both faced their own adjustments. The Office of Court Administration began to require clear plastic face shields after attorneys and jurors complained of difficulties understanding people who were wearing masks, but the glare of the shields can still impede the face-to-face drama that propels a jury trial.
“It’s important to see people’s facial expressions and see what evidence may have caused a reaction, positively or negatively, to a jury,” Hatley said. “I think any trial lawyer would tell you that shapes what direction a trial should go.”
On Monday, neither Hatley nor Moy got to ask a juror a single question.
Instead, the jurors were sent home just after 1 p.m., having spent about an hour in the second-floor courtroom and two hours out to lunch.
Prospective juror Terrie Waskow, 65, a longtime Cuero resident and former registered nurse, said she had been ready to serve on the jury and was surprised by the mistrial.
The court’s decision was “way cautious,” Waskow said.