Criminal jury trials to resume soon in Travis County with move to Stage 3

Travis County

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Jackson Dyre-Borowicz remembers his friend Christian Meroney as intelligent and a voracious reader.

“He could talk your ear off about anything and tell you more than you ever wanted to know about it,” Dyre-Borowicz said.

He said it was their shared love of University of Texas atheltics, however, that ultimately brought them close. He even asked Meroney to be a groomsman in his wedding in Mexico during the summer of 2018.

“Basically the weekend I got back was when I found out this happened,” Dyre-Borowicz recalled.

His friend had been shot at his south Austin apartment building, and he didn’t survive. Eventually, a neighbor in the building, Charles Curry, was arrested and charged in his murder. Police later reported Curry had gone on a shooting spree that had injured two other people.

In the more than three years since Meroney’s death, questions about Curry’s mental competency were raised, delaying any action on the case. After initially being ruled incompetent to stand trial, Curry “showed progress,” according to a doctor in a hearing in the summer of 2020. The doctor behind the mental health evaluation found Curry competent to stand trial and Travis County officials agreed.

Meanwhile, pending jury trials in Travis County continued to pile up as the pandemic stretched on.

“They always say, the wheels of justice turn slow, but grind fine, right?” Dyre-Borowicz said. “It’s been an odd year in a lot of ways — a couple of years. We were all shocked by the incident and the news of when this happened, but it has just been a lot of uncertainty.”

The Travis County District Attorney José Garza explained juries are using Zoom to hold trials virtually in Child Protective Services cases. Plus, grand juries have been meeting virtually. However, criminal jury trials must be held in person, and those were halted when cases began to rise.

“Criminal jury trials are in-person proceedings from inception to end. In accordance with health authority guidelines, our courtrooms seat a considerably smaller number of people when adhering to Travis County public health and social distancing guidelines. The criminal jury selection process, both in misdemeanor and felony cases, involves gathering large groups of the public for the purpose of  jury selection. As per our health authority guidelines and Supreme Court orders the criminal courts need to be able to seat them, in the same room, in accordance with all social distancing guidelines and other recommended public safety protocols that need to be observed and adhered to in the interest of maintaining public health and safety guidelines.”

Debra Hale, Criminal Court Administrator

As of Sept. 1, the Travis County District courts reported 254 criminal jury trials pending, which is up from 179 trials pending as of March 2, 2020, before the pandemic began.

However on Tuesday, the Travis County Court Administrator told KXAN they plan to start working through the backlog and restart in-person proceedings because of the move from Stage 4 to Stage 3 COVID-19 risk-based guidelines in Travis County. She said these proceedings will take place in late October or early November “on a limited basis.”

“The Judges have a plan to meet with stakeholders to finalize details,” she explained.

Earlier this year, the judges decided to try using the LBJ Auditorium on the University of Texas campus in order to conduct jury selection in two felony cases. 

“It was a very involved, complicated, and expensive process,” the administrator said, but noted that it was successful.

She said there were not enough jurors left for the trial process to continue in one case. In the other, resulted a jury was chosen and the case then proceeded to trial in one of the criminal district courts but was later dismissed by the District Attorney’s office before the trial concluded.  When cases began to spike with the spread of the Delta variant and the county moved into Stage 4 and 5 risked-based guidelines, the use of the LBJ Auditorium was discontinued.

D.A. Garza told KXAN it was “hard to say” how many trials were backlogged because negotiations were still ongoing in many indicted cases.

He also said a rise in homicides in 2021 meant their senior prosecutors are carrying a much heavier load, along with our Victim Witness Counselors, who are working with the families of the homicide victims. Still the Criminal Courts administrator said the spike in homicides likely hasn’t impacted the backlog of pending jury trials itself.

Terra Tucker, the Texas State Director of the Alliance for Safety and Justice, said it was difficult to get the resources and assistance usually available to crime victims and their families to those who might need it. She added that it has been a Texas-wide issue.

“Many survivors look to the court system as an important part of their healing. That needs to happen in a timely manner in order to move forward,” said Tucker.

She also pointed out how the backlog can impact defendants awaiting trial.

“They could be stuck in jail and just waiting; they could be out on pre-trial and and not getting the rehabilitation that they need,” she said. “It can be very destabilizing to have an active case in the system and nothing is moving forward. It can affect jobs; it can affect housing; it affects so many things, and so it affects our whole system. In order to really get back to promoting public safety, we need a system that’s up and running so that people can move forward — can heal and move forward — on both ends of the spectrum.”

Tucker hopes to see an emphasis on diversion, mental health or substance abuse resources, as well as justice, as the courts begin to tackle jury trials again.

Jackson Dyre-Borowicz said he hopes people see the need for mental health resources and take the message to heart.

“Taking care of yourself; taking care of others. Just being aware and holding people accountable,” he said. “How can we prevent these types of things from happening in the future?”

In the County Courts, which handle lower-level cases, the number of pending jury trials actually dropped from 646 right before the pandemic, to 468 by September 1.  The administrator explained that plea deals were negotiated in many of these cases over the course of the pandemic, while felony cases that are more “complex” are “less likely” to result in a plea. 

Judge Amy Clark Meachum of the 201st District Court said they will restart their “pilot project” on the Civil and Family side of the court system for in-person jury trials on November 1. 

A chart showing that jury trials pending in the Criminal County Courts in Travis County dropped from 646 to 468 from March 2020 to September 2021.
Jury trials pending in the Criminal County Courts in Travis County dropped over the time period from March 2020 to September 2021.

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