With courtrooms largely empty since the start of the pandemic, Tarrant County judges announced a plan Monday to handle a backlog of 50,000 criminal cases.
"Very scary,” said presiding administrative Judge George Gallagher about the growing number of pending cases.
It’s his job to get the system moving again.
"You have to balance justice and you have to balance safety,” Gallagher said.
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Many of the cases are routine.
Others are high profile, like the murder case of former police officer Aaron Dean for the killing of Atatiana Jefferson.
And Glen McCurley, accused of murdering high school student Carla Walker back in 1974.
"I've never seen anything like this and I've been on the bench for 22 years,” Gallagher said of the backlog.
But judges got together and came up with a solution.
Starting Aug. 30, they'll schedule 100 cases a day to see which might be handled with a simple plea bargain.
"Oldest case goes first,” Gallagher said. "We will start with people in custody first.”
They'll do felony cases for two weeks, then move to misdemeanors.
While judges are free to set their own schedules, the process suggests trials for defendants out on bond, like Aaron Dean, might be pushed back, despite community pressure.
McCurley, who is in jail, is set to go on trial next week.
Gallagher said moving all the cases through will require a lot of people working together.
"It's doable if everybody works real hard,” he said.
Judges promise their plan won't sacrifice justice for speed.
"For people who claim they are not guilty we are here to give them a trial,” Gallagher said.
Gallagher said he hoped trials would be back in full swing after the first of the year as the system struggles to catch up.
"It's a daily adventure,” he said.
Gallagher noted one of the few trials had to be postponed last week when a juror got COVID-19.
In another case, an inmate agreed to plead guilty and prosecutors agreed to a sentence of his time already served in jail, but he came down with the coronavirus and was unable to come to court for a hearing and remains behind bars.