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Local district court holds first jury trial in Brazos County since pandemic started
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Local district court holds first jury trial in Brazos County since pandemic started

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Twelve jurors were selected Monday for the first criminal jury trial in Brazos County since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Judge Steve Smith, who presides over the 361st District Court, said the jury trial is the first one in the county since late February. He said jury trials will continue to ramp up in the coming weeks, and he told the panel that the county was 45 trials behind schedule due to the pandemic — a reality with wide-ranging effects.

“I was pleased with the outcome,” Smith said following the jury selection. “They showed concern, but they also acknowledged the steps that we have taken to be as careful and sensitive as we can to their concerns regarding their health.”

Court staff members directed the 52 county residents on the voir dire panel to physically distant spots around the former sanctuary of the Brazos County Administration Building. The jury selection process was moved from the courthouse to ensure adequate space for social distancing, but the trials will be at the courthouse.

The selection panel entered the room about 9:15 a.m. Monday and the jury was chosen just shy of 2:30 p.m. The attorneys asked questions of the jurors as usual.

Throughout the proceedings, Smith, the attorneys and the potential jurors took off their masks to speak and then put them back on when finished. Smith explained that mask removal was so that court reporter Wendy Kirby could accurately capture the words uttered throughout the day. Hand sanitizer was plentiful and staff members set up self-operating temperature scans throughout the Administration Building’s first-floor hallway.

In interviews after the jury was selected, county residents not chosen for the jury expressed relief and also concern about the safety of some aspects of the trial health procedures as laid out by Smith.

In particular, several people said they were worried about being indoors for long periods of time in enclosed spaces. Smith said jurors would wear masks except during testimony, when supplied face shields would be worn so as to allow jurors’ faces to be visible, which Smith said is important for attorneys when trying a case.

The trial jurors will be physically distanced in seating throughout the proceedings, Smith said.

In interviews following the voir dire selection, assistant district attorneys Maritza Sifuentez-Chavarria and Nathan Wood and defense attorney Earl Gray said it was important to resume jury trials and find safe means to do so in a collaborative manner.

“Zoom is all well and good for bench trials and civil cases, but for a criminal case, they have the right to be confronted by their accusers, have a jury trial, and this is the only way that’s going to happen,” Gray said.

“Justice is a communal event when it comes to jury trials. More than anything, the virus has disrupted our sense of community,” Wood said. He said that 70 people were pulled for the jury, 55 people showed up Monday morning and 52 people were seated for the voir dire panel.

The criminal trial will begin today and is expected to last three days or less.

Doug White, a county resident who was not chosen to serve on the jury, praised the setup of the selection process but said he was concerned about the protocol of having face shields without masks for jurors during the testimony portion of a trial. The health expert consensus is that face shields are less effective than face masks at preventing virus transmission. White also said he was worried about potential risk during jury deliberations.

“I felt like they did a fine job in this part of it,” White said, gesturing toward the large room, “but I was very uncomfortable when they started describing the trial portion.”

White said he has worked to stay isolated since mid-March, and noted that other potential jurors present expressed similar fears.

Smith praised court staff and said safety and justice will remain the focus going forward. 

“I think it worked well today,” Smith said. “A lot of people did a lot of work to make sure that people felt as safe as they could feel, and we will continue to do that into the future. ... I was glad that people today had some confidence in what we’re doing, and I think as time goes by, there will be more confidence.”

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