Pandemic continues to delay justice in central Texas

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WACO, Texas (KWTX) – From football stadiums to grocery stores, it looks like COVID-19 restrictions are pretty much a thing of the past in central Texas … until you need to see a judge.

At the McLennan County Courthouse, time appears to have stood still thanks to the coronavirus concerns.

“Trials are kind of the lubricant that turns the wheels of justice,” said Jon Gimble, McLennan County District Clerk.

While the “wheels” came to a complete stop for months during the pandemic, justice is spinning again … but very slowly.

The courthouse typically had between two and six trials per week, however, right now it’s about two per month due to COVID-19 restrictions imposed by the Texas Supreme Court and the Office of Administration courts.

“We have, in November, two weeks where we will have to try to complete two trials in district courts at the same time, and this will be a first since we have been subject to COVID restrictions,” Gimble said.

Gimble says the Texas Supreme Court and the OCA define their operating environment and right now it’s “pretty restrictive,” he says.

“Courtrooms like this (the 19th District Court) would normally hold 60 people for a jury, as well as lawyers, bailiffs, a judge and a court reporter: under COVID restrictions it is assessed at 14, ”Gimble said.

Distancing and mask / shield requirements are just a few of the hurdles.

While they need larger spaces to meet distancing requirements, safety is key, Gimble says.

In order to make jury selection within the restrictions imposed by the higher court, McLennan County rents BASE from the Extraco Events Center.

However, the trials require additional security measures from the sheriff’s office, so the county is trying to find ways to run its established courtrooms: a few are used for misdemeanors and the affairs of the county courts, however, the only courtroom in the courthouse suitable for the trial district is currently the annex courtroom.

“The judges do their best to make things clear through a deal, but without a trial some things just don’t get resolved,” Gimble said.

Gimble says some accused felons have been in McLennan County Jail for more than three years.

“It becomes like ‘where is due process, where is trial quick, but a lot of that hasn’t come up, which I saw, because people are so concerned about COVID,” Gimble said.

However, the backlog isn’t as bad as you might think, says Gimble, as so-called “COVID deals” are emerging.

“So the agreements got a bit better for non-violent crime because we were trying to keep the prison as sparsely populated as possible,” Gimble said. “There have been some great cases of non-violent crime, and it’s up to the prosecutor to see what they can do to help the system.”

Since they reopened the trials in May, McLennan County has had more than a dozen criminal trials, however, there hasn’t been a civil trial for 18 months, Gimble says.

They hope that will change in 2022.

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