BRAZORIA COUNTY – An attorney representing the now-former Brazoria County district clerk at the center of an investigation into jury selection said his client did her best to make sure juries were properly representative of Brazoria County.
Rhonda Barchak retired from her post in August. Since then, allegations that she illegally assembled jury panels have grown. Barchak’s attorney, Chip Lewis, said the claims aren’t true.
“At no time during her tenure did she do anything improper,” Lewis wrote in a statement to KPRC 2. “Any claims of systemic racism relative to this jury empaneling process could not be further from the truth.”
Questions surrounding Brazoria County’s jury selection process first arose in August, following Barchak’s retirement. Then, Brazoria County District Attorney Tom Selleck wrote in a statement to KPRC 2, “this office has received allegations of improprieties or irregularities in the jury assembly process. The law requires jurors be selected at random and it is this process that is alleged to have been conducted improperly.”
Barchak had held the role of district clerk since 2010. Since her departure, a growing chorus of community leaders, including the Texas NAACP, has called on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate claims of jury tampering. However, Lewis said his client had “zero information regarding which potential jurors would be assigned to which court or which case.” He cited Barchak’s methodology for stacking jury panels, a process that’s now being investigated by the Texas Rangers.
While Lewis released a statement to KPRC 2 on Monday defending his client, he did not respond to a request to detail the methodology by which Barchak’s office stacked jury panels. According to an article published by Texas Monthly, Lewis said Barchak’s system was random and ensured greater minority representation.
The system, according to the article, began by Barchak taking a stack of juror cards and separating them according to whether they lived in Pearland or not. From there, the article continued, the district clerk would split those two categories, creating four stacks: Pearland residents and non-Pearland residents, as well as non-Pearland white residents and non-Pearland non-white residents.
Lewis said the system was in place because Brazoria County lacked the “technical capability” to randomly assemble the stacks electronically. They did so by hand, as a result.
A randomized selection process is required by state law.
“Multiple judges, attorneys, and dozens of other county employees were privy to the process of jury empanelment, and no one ever expressed any dissatisfaction or complaint about the process as the process did not disenfranchise any potential jurors,” Lewis said to KPRC 2.
However, multiple sources told KPRC 2, Barchak’s methodology included separation by political party. At a press conference in August, community activist Quannel X cited two whistleblowers who alleged the same thing. Meantime, a growing number of community leaders said the allegations lead to questions about the integrity of jurors, possibly resulting in hundreds of cases being re-tried or thrown out.
“It is clearly illegal,” said Robert Williams, the criminal justice committee chairman of the Brazoria County NAACP.
Williams, who is also a member of the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats, said the problem further underscores a lack of diversity among officials elected to county-wide offices.
“I’m sure this is going to go way up the chain of the Brazoria County criminal justice system,” Williams said.
Durrel Douglas, executive director and founder of the Houston Justice, agreed.
“This is evidence that a lot of the protests that we saw last year. This is long the lines of what we’re talking about when we say there’s a need to change the criminal justice system,” Douglas said.
According to Douglas, the investigation in Brazoria County is indicative of the need for overall reform of the system.
“People should be judged by their peers when it comes to a grand jury or a petit jury. That’s the expectation. That should be the reality,” Douglas continued.
Eugene Howard of the Texas NAACP said the federal government must investigate the allegations because they stretch back a decade.
“That’s racist. That’s just separating by color. You can try to spin it any kind of way you want. Justice is supposed to be blind,” Howard said, adding, “families have been ruined by her actions for years.”
Community leaders also challenged Lewis’ claim that Barchak’s system was intended to properly reflect the population of Brazoria County, which continues to see growth.
“Brazoria County, by the way, is now a majority-minority county. So, why is she doing all of this stuff,” Robert Williams asked.
Arnetta Murray, a city councilor for Iowa Colony, said that was one of her questions going forward.
“Why did it happen and my next question is how do we move forward,” Murray said.
Murray said she wasn’t made aware of the allegations until recently because the process by which the county stacked jury panels wasn’t made available to those outside of the Brazoria County courthouse. She called on elected leaders to do the right thing.
“I believe this to my heart that it’s got to be better and it’s gonna be done better,” Murray said.
Brazoria County District Attorney Tom Selleck’s office told KPRC2 he couldn’t comment on the matter because of the ongoing investigation by the Texas Rangers. A spokesperson said the investigation could be complete by the end of the month, at which time he would make a statement.
Robert Williams said Selleck has promised community leaders he would reveal the investigations’ findings once he received them.