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Pandemic continues to delay justice in Central Texas

Published: Oct. 21, 2021 at 2:56 AM CDT
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WACO, Texas (KWTX) - From football stadiums to grocery stores, it seems 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 seems to be standing still thanks to coronavirus concerns.

“The trials are kind of the lubricant that keep the wheels of justice turning,” said Jon Gimble, District Clerk for McLennan County.

While the ‘wheels’ stopped completely for months during the pandemic, justice is turning once again...but very slowly.

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

“We have, in November, two weeks where we’re going to have to try to get two district court trials done at once, and that will be a first since we’ve been under COVID restrictions,” said Gimble.

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

“Courtrooms like this (the 19th District Court) would normally hold 60 people for a jury panel, plus lawyers, bailiffs, judge and court reporter: under COVID restrictions, it’s rated for 14,” said Gimble.

The distancing and mask/shield requirements are only some of the hurdles.

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

In order to do jury selection under the higher court’s imposed restrictions, McLennan County is renting out BASE at the Extraco Events Center.

However, trials require additional safety measures from the Sheriff’s Office, so the county is trying to find ways to make its established courtrooms work: a few are being used for misdemeanor and county court cases, however, the only courtroom at the courthouse suitable for district court trials right now is the annex courtroom.

“The judges are doing their best to clear things through agreement, but without a trial, some things just don’t resolve,” said Gimble.

Gimble says some accused felons have been in the McLennan County Jail for an excess of three years.

“It gets to be like ‘where’s the due process, where’s the speedy trial, but a lot of that hasn’t been raised, that I’ve seen, because people are so concerned about COVID,” said Gimble.

However, the back-log isn’t as bad as you’d think, Gimble says, as so-called ‘COVID deals’ are being hatched.

“So the deals got a little better for non-violent crimes because we were trying to keep the jail as low populated as possible,” said Gimble. “There were some nice deals of non-violent crimes, and that’s the DA’s purview to see what they can do to help the system out.”

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

They’re hoping that will change sometime in 2022.

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