Travis County prepares to begin felony jury trials again for first time since pandemic, with modifications

Travis County

AUSTIN (KXAN) — As Travis County prepares to resume criminal jury trials in person, courtrooms have been transformed to minimize the risk of COVID-19 spread.

“Even though the numbers are waning, we still are in the pandemic, and we can’t ignore that fact, especially with the delta variant,” said 147th Criminal District Court Judge Cliff Brown. “You want people to serve. You want people to want to serve. And, so, you want to make them feel as comfortable as possible.”

Brown gave a KXAN crew a tour of his courtroom to show the modifications.

All of the courtrooms are outfitted with plexiglass separating attorneys, witnesses and the judge. Jurors will sit in the gallery, rather than on the jury bench, so they can distance more. Jurors and witnesses will also wear clear face shields, so everyone in the courtroom can still see their facial expressions. Additionally, lawyer tables will be turned to the side so attorneys can see both jurors and witnesses.

Courtrooms also have sanitizing stations, and everyone who enters will be screened for COVID-19.

Most of the county’s criminal courtrooms won’t have room for the public, so special cameras will stream felony trials online.

  • Travis County courtroom with COVID-19 precautions in place (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)
  • Travis County courtroom with COVID-19 precautions in place (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)
  • Travis County courtroom with COVID-19 precautions in place (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)

Additionally, each floor of the courthouse will be limited to one trial at a time, so jurors can spread out for their deliberations in the courtroom next door, rather than in the normal, smaller deliberation rooms.

Brown said jurors who truly aren’t comfortable due to COVID-19 won’t be forced to serve.

While criminal courtrooms in Travis County will all look the same, it will be up to individual judges’ discretion as to whether masks are required.

Brown said a lot of communication in the courtroom is non-verbal, so it’s important that people’s full faces be seen. He doesn’t plan to require masks in his court with all of the other precautions already in place.

In an aggravated sexual assault case set for trial this week, one defense attorney asked for a delay. Brian Erskine is representing Quentin Goffney. Erskine feels masks and even the glare on face shields could impact a case.

“Our biggest issue is the inability to see people’s faces, even passive expressions while others are speaking, which gives a window into their opinions and potential bias,” Erskine told KXAN in a statement.

Erskine went on to say, “When my client is facing life in prison, I’m going to make d–n sure I am as effective as possible, and continue to object until the playing field is fair. Not, ‘as fair as it can be right now,’ but as fair as it has been in normal conditions and as fair as it was for other accused individuals prior to COVID. My greatest fear, besides the wrongful convictions that happen so often, is that my client doesn’t get a fair trial, that I let that happen, and did so whimpering softly instead of raging loudly against it.”

Goffney’s case was granted a continuance into late August, Erskine told KXAN.

Another felony case, Paul Adams’ murder trial, was set for this week, too. However, it was pushed pack due to a busted jury.

While some misdemeanor jury trials have been done remotely, the Texas Office of Court Administration said no felony jury trials were done virtually in the state.

“We have a number of people who have been in jail for, you know, quite some time, and we have to get those cases moving,” Brown said. “People are entitled to their day in court.”

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