After weeks of delayed justice since Hurricane Harvey plummeted the Harris County court system into chaos, hundreds of jurors are set to descend on the downtown court complex Monday so defendants pleading not guilty can finally start having their days in court.
Jury duty was cancelled during Harvey and after the floodwaters got so high they seeped through the walls of the Criminal Justice Center, rendering the courthouse useless. The glass jury assembly building — which leads to underground rooms and corridors where jurors gathered before heading to court — was also flooded with nine feet of water, leaving jurors without any home base.
Since then, Harris County District Clerk Chris Daniel has had to mail out new notices to thousands of potential jurors informing them of the new locations for court and jury meetings while the criminal court judges — who are now sharing courtrooms with fellow judges in the civil and family law buildings — configured how they could find new rooms for trials since no one had courtrooms of their own anymore.
Jurors will now head to the first floor of the county administration building at 1001 Preston to report for duty (thus displacing the early voting location normally set up there, which will be moved up several floors), and then will go to the basement cafeteria to learn jury basics — and possibly sit there waiting for hours to get called to whatever court for voir dire.
Still, with all that worked out, Daniel said there was just one problem: There weren’t enough bathrooms for the hundreds of jurors.
“The cafeteria wasn’t designed for 300 people to be sitting there for more than two hours,” Daniel said.
So the county brought in two “professional, luxury portable bathrooms,” as Daniel put it, and placed the trailer-bathrooms outside behind the 1001 Preston building. These aren’t your county-fair port-a-potties, but have full running water and six bathroom stalls inside two trailers, Daniel said.
“Obviously the bathrooms throughout the building are not closed to the jurors or the public, but it would be too difficult to have that many people going up and down the stairs or up and down the elevators searching for bathrooms,” he said.
In the courts, both misdemeanor and felony judges are prioritizing trials for those who are currently stuck in jail and haven’t been able to bail out. County Court-at-Law Judge Darrell Jordan said the 16 misdemeanor judges will share four courtrooms in teams of four — mostly in the family law center, with one courtroom in a county attorney’s office building. Clay Bowman, district courts administrator, said felony judges also have two courtrooms in the family law center reserved for trials for those stuck in jail. Update, 10:15 a.m.: State District Judge Susan Brown said felony courts will be selecting more than 100 jurors for new grand jury panels this week, and that felony jury trials will resume on October 23 once grand juries are sorted out.
Defense attorney Julio Vela, also a co-host on the defense bar’s weekly TV show Reasonable Doubt, said an April federal court order requiring Harris County to release people within 24 hours if they can’t afford bail turned out to be a particular blessing after Harvey, given those who refused to take a plea deal but who may not have been able to afford bail may have been stuck in jail for weeks as they awaited trial post-Harvey.
“There’s very few people in jail who just have a low-level misdemeanor offense,” Vela said. “Thank God that [ bail lawsuit and court order] happened and they’re out, because then we would have some real problems.”
That doesn’t mean there weren’t nightmare cases: Given suspected undocumented immigrants with immigration holds are ineligible for the court-required 24-hour release, some may have been waiting for weeks on end to plead their case despite being booked on low-level charges. The Texas Tribune highlighted one such nightmare, the case of one man who had been stuck in jail for ten weeks on a misdemeanor assault charge, who has refused to take plea bargains.
This problem was much more pronounced on the felony side, Vela said, given accused felons also aren’t eligible for release from jail if they are too poor to bail out and therefore would simply have to wait until juries came back to have a new trial date on the books, unless their bail was lowered or their attorney petitioned for their release.
“Delayed justice is justice denied,” Vela said, “and if there are defendants sitting in jail who should have had their day in court or it’s been delayed, I think those people need to be released.”
Once trials resume, Vela said there will be no time for “funny business” among defense attorneys and prosecutors who often ask the judge to reset the trial because they’re unprepared. There are currently hundreds of defendants out on bond who need a trial date too, and defense attorneys have estimated that it could be several months before more of those cases start getting resolved. There’s no time for any more delays, Vela said.
“The judge is going to really have to hold both the defense and the state’s feet to the fire and say, hey look, are you ready or not? This case is up, and if you’re not ready, we’re moving forward.”