Commissioners grapple with potential pause in jury selection, case backlog

KPRC Investigates

Harris County commissioners recently approved spending $3.8 million to extend a lease agreement with the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation.

The county has been holding jury selection at NRG Arena since July of 2020 because of the COVID pandemic. The lease extension allows the county to continue using NRG Arena through Sept 2022, except for a two-month period.

County paperwork shows jury assembly cannot take place at NRG Arena from Feb. 6 through March 31 because the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo need the space during that time.

“We’re not going to stop selecting juries, it’s just going to run a little slower than we would like to,” said Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

Garcia said he and his colleagues are still trying to figure out where jury selection will take place during those two months.

“If we have to rent mobile units or something, we’re going to figure it out, but we’re not going to stop the jury selection process,” said Garcia.

Harris County’s own jury assembly facility has been ready to go since September. The facility was heavily damaged during Harvey, but is now back in working order. So, why aren’t we using that?

“The hold up with the jury assembly room is simply where we’re at with COVID,” said Garcia.

County officials worry the space doesn’t allow enough room for social distancing. However, attorneys like Shannon Davis argue the space needs to be re-opened now. He said many attorneys find picking a jury at NRG extremely difficult because the subtle science of picking jurors is difficult with face shields, masks and microphones in large, open settings.

“To keep throwing money at NRG and keep us at NRG knowing full well we don’t want to be there; it’s not good for our clients, it’s not good for the state,” said Davis. “It has turned voir dire on its head.”

The district court judges also have a say on the mechanics of jury selection, but a representative for the courts said no decisions have been made yet. The county can get out of its lease early if it doesn’t need the NRG facility through next September. Garcia will bring up this issue during the next commissioner’s court meeting.

“Tackling the backlog in our courts is a key priority for addressing our crime rate and ensuring due process. As our judicial stakeholders agree on the most efficient physical venue for jury trials and calls, our Harris County Public Health Department stands ready to offer recommendations to make those plans safe and our County Administrator and Facilities teams are ready to facilitate logistics,” Judge Lina Hidalgo wrote in a statement to KPRC 2.

Garcia also recently spoke about the tens of thousands of backlogged criminal court cases. County records show since Jan 2020, 24,189 felony cases and 19, 103 misdemeanor cases have stacked up. These figures do not include the cases pending prior to Jan 2020.

Hurricane Harvey and the Covid pandemic greatly fueled the backlog and commissioners have approved more than $38 million in various programs to tackle the problem.

“We got to make sure we’re getting a return on our investment,” Garcia said in reference to clearance rates in the felony courts. “It’s all about public safety.”

During a Nov. 30 commissioner’s court meeting, Garcia applauded criminal court judges who, over a 1 year period, cleared 70-percent or more of their cases. Garcia also pointed out two judges with lower clearance rates, specifically Judges Ramona Franklin with 49% and Ana Martinez with 61%.

“I wanted to make sure people knew where we had judges that are working hard, and where we had judges that need to pick up the pace,” said Garcia.

Martinez declined to comment and Franklin has not yet responded to KPRC 2′s request for comment.

You can view caseloads and clearance rates at the Harris County District Courts Dashboard.

“It’s nothing personal, it’s all about making sure the system works best,” said Garcia.

The backlog of cases keeps defendants from having their day in court, families from seeing justice and is a contributor to keeping the jail full. The current jail population is over 8,761 and has not gone below 8,000 inmates since the second quarter of 2020. According to county records, inmates remain in jail for an average of 199 days.

“Law enforcement is doing a great job of arresting and getting many people off the streets but somebody has to care for them while they’re waiting for their day in court,” said Sheriff Ed Gonzalez during a news conference discussing the sexual assault of a jail sergeant.

Officials with the DA’s office told commissioners they’ve stabilized the backlog, but have not yet started whittling down the number. Garcia is floating the possibility of having weekend and night court to help bring the numbers down faster, but formal discussions have not yet taken place.

About the Authors:

Award winning investigative journalist who joined KPRC 2 in July 2000. Husband and father of the Master of Disaster and Chaos Gremlin. “I don’t drink coffee to wake up, I wake up to drink coffee.”

Award-winning broadcast journalist covering local, regional, national and international stories. Recognized in the industry for subject matter expertise including: Legal/Court Research, the Space Industry, Education, Environmental Issues, Underserved Populations and Data Visualization.