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Harris County continues to grapple with a huge backlog of criminal cases

HOUSTON – As Harris County puts the final pieces in place to resume jury assembly and selection, the backlog of felony and misdemeanor cases continues to grow. Damage from Hurricane Harvey to the criminal courthouse greatly slowed the pace of trials, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened the problem.

“When you can’t have trials, everything else behind that backs up,” said Harris County prosecutor JoAnne Musick. “We were starting to see some progress earlier this year and COVID has just brought it to a complete halt.”

Harris County records show there are more than 80,024 pending felony and misdemeanor cases, which is nearly double the number of pending cases at this time last year.

“If things don’t get moving, is the DA’s Office going to be forced to start offering plea deals everywhere?” asked KPRC 2 Investigator Robert Arnold.

“I certainly hope not, that’s always a possibility. People in the past have called it like a fire sale,” said Musick. “We need prosecutors, we need courts, we need space, we need this all to start moving.

The Supreme Court of Texas halted all jury trials and jury selection because of the pandemic, and the court recently extended that order until September 1. The only exceptions are those cases that receive special permission from regional judges and the state Office of Court Administration.

“We really do not want to end up in a position where we have to do fire sales, or inventory sales, on violent criminals,” said Musick.

The halt in trials is a large part of the reason the Harris County Jail’s population remains above 8,000 inmates. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office even had to create a so-called “Zoom Team” to help keep cases moving through the courts. HCSO put together a video explaining the new procedures.

The county already has a plan to handle the resumption of jury services. The county signed a lease through December 16 to utilize NRG Arena for this function. Plans have also been outlined to continue the Arkema trial on the second floor of the arena. This is the trial involving the Harvey related explosion at the facility in Crosby.

KPRC 2 was given a tour of the arena and a rundown of the safety precautions. Potential jurors will be required to wear masks and have their temperature checked before entering the building. They will then proceed through metal detectors as normal. Gates have been placed to control the flow of traffic and stickers are being placed on the floor to help maintain social distancing. County officials said potential jurors will also be screened to make they are not sick when the report for jury duty. Hand sanitizer will also be made available.

Jury assembly will take place in the main arena with potential jurors spaced three seats apart. Seats will be sanitized after each use. Voir dire and other proceedings will take place in Exhibit Hall B and the Pavilion.

“Right now, without hearing anything more, we have to be opposed to NRG,” said Mark Thiessen, defense attorney and president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association.

Theissen said his members need to hear more about the process of handling jury selection at NRG Arena.

“Is it going to be face shields or face masks, am I going to be able to hear the person?” asked Thiessen.

Thiessen said his group members also want a chance to give their input on how trials will resume.

“We have people that are not guilty or innocent, sitting in jail that are like, ‘give me my trial, I want to get out.’ Then we also have lawyers and people that are concerned with their safety,” said Thiessen. “It is a careful balance on how we’re going to proceed.”

Musick said the NRG Arena plan is only a good start.

“It starts up the jury process, it does not fix any of the other problems in our system and it doesn’t cure the backlog,” said Musick.

KPRC 2 Legal analyst Brian Wice called all of these questions “uncharted territory.”

“We’re talking about the price of justice and that shouldn’t be a situation where we operate like a Persian Bazaar,” said Wice.

Wice said COVID-19 created a situation where the county has to balance the interests of a mounting backlog, with a defendant’s right to a fair and speedy trial and the public’s right to remain safe.

“I think the answer to that question, right now, is unfathomable,” Wice said.

Judge Robert Schaffer, representing the trial court judges, said other than Arkema, there are no plans to hold trials at NRG Arena; only jury assembly and selection. He adds the process for jury trials has not yet been worked out and all sides will be updated as procedures are finalized.

The selection process for new grand jurors will begin next week with general jury summons going out later in anticipation of trials resuming on September 1.

The judges also said there will be consideration given to those who are considered to be especially vulnerable to COVID-19. The clerk’s office said jurors will also be allowed to park for free at NRG Arena. The arena is also the site, if needed, where county officials said a pop-up hospital would be set-up to accommodate an overflow of COVID-19 patients. The judges said if that happens, then any judicial proceedings would be immediately canceled.