‘A human experiment’: Texas pandemic-era jury trials challenged by health risks and a growing backlog of cases

Travis County Judge Nicholas Chu prepared in August for the nation’s first virtual criminal trial in a traffic case.                    Credit: Steve Miller/Texas Office of Court Administration
Travis County Judge Nicholas Chu prepared in August for the nation’s first virtual criminal trial in a traffic case. Credit: Steve Miller/Texas Office of Court Administration

BRYAN — It had been a month since his criminal trial began, but Teron Pratt was still awaiting judgment when he walked into a Central Texas courtroom last fall in gray slacks, a matching button-down shirt and a brown face mask.

A weekslong trial for car burglary is far from typical, but these were abnormal times — as evidenced by the blue X’s taped onto half of the jury box chairs, and bottles of hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes scattered throughout the courtroom.

Pratt, 46 and homeless, had been in the Brazos County jail for more than a year and a half, suspected of stealing from two trucks after numerous burglary convictions. His trial, originally slated for March 16, was delayed for months as the deadly coronavirus swept through the state and prompted the closures of restaurants, stores and, notably, courts.

In 2019, about 186 Texas jury trials were held in civil and criminal cases in an average week, according to the state Office of Court Administration. From March until June of 2020, that number went to zero. The backlog of cases, which has continued to grow, will likely take the state years to overcome.

“The court system in Texas has responded really well in everything except jury trials,” David Slayton, administrative director of the state’s court administration office, said in September. “It’s not really possible or feasible to have a lot of people in a room.”

Last summer, several counties began experimenting with ways to hold in-person jury trials under the supervision of the state. Among those counties was Brazos, which scheduled two in-person criminal jury trials for defendants who had long been incarcerated. In mid-August, jail employees drove Pratt and another man about a mile and a half to the courthouse to stand trial.

At first, everything went as planned.

The jurors had been chosen earlier from a group of about 50 in a nearly 8,000-square-foot room at the county’s convention center. Those who said they weren’t comfortable being in court because of the pandemic had been dismissed.