Dallas County Criminal Courthouse hallways have been mostly empty the past year because of COVID-19 but that’s about to change.
In-person jury trials will resume June 1 but there will be modifications from the old way of conducting court prior to the pandemic.
“I think the judges and the rest of us feel confident we can do this in a safe and effective manner,” Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot said.
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Glass shields are being added and courtrooms will be reconfigured to put the jury in the gallery instead of the cramped jury box. The judge and lawyers will leave when the jury deliberates because the jury room is too small for social distancing.
“We're going to try as best as we can to maintain an environment that will be conducive to having a good trial and getting at the facts in all of these cases,” State District Judge Brandon Birmingham said.
Instead of hundreds of prospective jurors crowding the courthouse hallways to report to multiple courtrooms at once, jurors will all stay in the central jury room while they are being selected for one panel at a time.
And there will be fewer panels at first. Birmingham is not scheduled to have a jury panel available for trial in his court until July.
“We have a backlog of people who've been waiting for their trial, longer than normal. That's terribly unfortunate for them, for the victims and for the community at large,” he said.
But all parts of the criminal justice system have been working together to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Dallas County Jail is more than 1,500 inmates below capacity as judges and prosecutors worked to help move inmates through to avoid disease.
Creuzot said dangerous criminals were not released and public safety was not compromised.
“We've worked differently but effectively and we've gotten our mission accomplished. We're a little bit behind but nothing like you'd expect,” Creuzot said.
Plea bargains helped resolve many cases that were awaiting trial.
An example is the case of 38-year old Jonathan Alger Moore.
The man with a history of intoxicated driving pleaded guilty in April to the 2019 impaired driving murders of former Dallas City Council Member Carolyn Davis and her daughter.
He received 45 years in prison instead of life without parole.
Creuzot said Moore is likely to die in prison before he is paroled in this case.
“If we can resolve them without having the trauma of having a family come down and testify in a court proceeding, and if we can do so consistent with public safety, we will,” Creuzot said.
The District Attorney said the threat of criminal trials restarting has increased the number of defense attorneys seeking plea bargains.
“Whatever backlog we have, we don’t expect it to stay that way for very long,” Creuzot said.
When trials resume, visitors will not be allowed at first but video will stream live.
”All of these trials are going to be streamed on YouTube,” Judge Birmingham said. “It is more access.”
If COVID-19 infections continue to decline and vaccinations increase, the courthouse restrictions could be relaxed further.