HOUSTON – Issues related to media publicity and a gag order as well as a concern over a lack diversity among attorneys representing those killed or injured during last year’s deadly Astroworld music festival were discussed during a court hearing on Tuesday.
The hearing was the first time lawyers handling the nearly 500 lawsuits filed after 10 people died and hundreds of others were injured during a massive crowd surge at the Nov. 5 concert headlined by rapper Travis Scott had met in court after the cases were consolidated before one judge.
After being appointed last month by a judicial panel overseen by the Texas Supreme Court to handle all pretrial matters in the lawsuits, state District Judge Kristen Hawkins issued a gag order in the case.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Hawkins clarified her order, saying lawyers could tell the media about factual issues that happen in court, but she didn’t want attorneys to make their cases in the court of public opinion and possibly influence the jury pool.
“This case should be tried in the courtroom and not on social media or with press releases or other statements to the media,” Hawkins said.
Brent Coon, an attorney who is representing about 1,500 concertgoers and is asking for $10 billion in damages, said after the hearing he understands the judge’s goal of “let’s keep who’s pointing the finger at who, let that be courtroom issues and jury issues ultimately.”
“But this is a case of public import for all the reasons that are obvious,” Coon said.
Most of Wednesday’s court hearing was spent discussing how the cases would proceed, the creation of a leadership structure that would speak on behalf of attorneys for each side, how disputes over evidence or other matters would be handled. Hawkins said she planned to have monthly hearings. She requested that by the next hearing, lawyers give her a breakdown of the various lawsuits by four categories: deaths, bodily injuries, brain injuries and post traumatic stress disorder.
Coon said it could be years before any trials or settlements in the case take place.
During the court hearing, civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who is representing the family of the youngest person to die from injuries during the festival, said that most of the victims killed or injured were Black but the majority of attorneys representing them are white. During Wednesday’s hearing, most of the 50 to 60 attorneys in the courtroom were white.
“There seems to be not much representation in the court of those African American voices. We really grapple with it. We are concerned about them not having a voice,” said Crump, who represents the family of 9-year-old Ezra Blount, who was Black. Ezra's father, Treston Blount, who was with his son at the concert, was at Tuesday's court hearing.
In recent years, Crump has represented victims of police brutality and vigilante violence and has been the lawyer for the families of Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
Hawkins told Crump this issue is something “that has not gone unnoticed by the court ... I would like that to be considered going forward.”
But Hawkins said she was “not going to choose someone’s counsel for them. I do know we have excellent attorneys in this room and those attorneys come from all aspects of Harris County.”
Neal Manne, who represents Astroworld festival promoter Live Nation, thanked Crump for highlighting this issue, saying, “I agree with him.”
Houston police are still conducting a criminal investigation of the Astroworld concert.
The U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee in December announced it was investigating Live Nation’s role in the deadly concert.
Last month, Houston officials announced the creation of a new task force that will look at improving the safety at large Houston-area events.
Those who died in the concert ranged in age from 9 to 27 years old. Roughly 300 people were injured and treated at the scene, and 25 were taken to hospitals. Those killed died from compression asphyxia.
Find the AP’s coverage of the Astroworld festival: https://apnews.com/hub/astroworld-festival-deaths
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70