BRAZORIA COUNTY, Texas – As the investigation into allegations of jury tampering continues in Brazoria County, there are growing concerns among members of the county’s Republican party that county leaders are not being forward about how jury panels are assembled.
The Texas Rangers are in the process of investigating whether Rhonda Barchak, Brazoria County’s former District Clerk, illegally stacked jury panels according to geography, race, and political affiliation. Barchak, a Republican, left her post in August, leading to the Brazoria County District Attorney Tom Selleck calling on the Rangers to investigate “allegations of improprieties or irregularities in the jury assembly process.”
The investigation is expected to be completed by the end of October, according to the District Attorney’s Office, which has said the jury system “is of paramount importance and vital to our system of justice.”
Juries are to be randomly selected, according to Texas law, but some within the local GOP say the process by which Barchak stacked jury panels was not random.
“I was extremely concerned,” said Luke Orlando, a city councilman in the City of Pearland. Orlando, a Republican, said he is awaiting the results of the ongoing investigation, but worries about whether some Brazoria County residents received a fair trial. “I think that a fair trial by jury is one of our most sacred rights in our constitution,” Orlando said.
Chip Lewis is Barchak’s defense attorney. In a statement to KPRC2, Lewis said Barchak’s system was not illegal and well known within the Brazoria County courthouse.
Lewis also said Barchak’s method was random, with juror cards assembled by hand because the county lacked the “technical capability” to do so electronically.
That’s a claim many have challenged.
“By definition of you’re creating tranches of voters based on different characteristics, based on their race, based on their geography, that’s inherently not random,” Orlando said. Orlando said he is awaiting results of the Texas Rangers investigation.
Part of Barchak’s system included dividing juror cards according to whether they resided in the City of Pearland, which her attorney told KPRC2 helped to provide a representative cross-section of the county’s population.
That point has been scrutinized for it’s validity, considering Pearland’s growth over the past decade. Recent census data shows Pearland’s population grew by 38.9% over the past decade. Fifty-nine percent of the city’s population identifies as a person of color, census data shows.
Pearland aside, there are concerns county officials are not saying much about the potential consequences. Depending on findings, hundreds of cases possibly could be thrown out or retried.
Dietrich von Biedenfeld is Mayor Pro Tem of West Columbia. Biedenfeld, a Republican, and an attorney, said the allegations troubled him. He called for a thorough investigation by the Texas Rangers and welcomed a third party, such as the Department of Justice, while pushing his party to be more inclusive. “We can definitely use more diversity in our county government,” von Biedenfeld said, adding there is a divide within Brazoria’s GOP - one that keeps some out of the know. “If you’re not part of that inner circle many of those allegations trickle out and you hear conflicting sort of testimonies, conflicting assessments and even conflicting facts,” von Biedenfeld said.