CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — It’s been over a year since jury trials were on the docket for judges in Nueces county. On Wednesday, they can begin again.
214th District Judge Inna Klein said it’s up to the judges in the Nueces County Courthouse to decide when they’re ready to begin. Klein said, had 117th District Court Judge Sandra Watts had a case ready to go, they could have scheduled for Wednesday.
Klein said her courtroom will look completely different. Plexiglass has been placed all over, dividing everyone on the courtroom floor.
“It does not look like the courtrooms we used to see before COVID-(19)," she said. "I think we have more Plexiglass in one courtroom than we used to have in the entire Home Depot or Lowe's.”
The jury box will no longer be used by the jury. Instead, seats have been removed from the gallery. They’ve been replaced by 14 leather seats where jury members and alternates will sit.
“At one point we actually considered breaking down the wall between the jury room and the courtroom to accommodate for more social distancing," said Klein. "And of course, that would have been an even bigger project.”
Masks will be required for jurors. Klein said the county judge has already mandated them in areas outside the courtroom, and the Board of Judges are mandating them inside.
What she said will be tricky is voir dire, also known as jury selection. That will still take place in the central jury room, but with masks being mandated, attorneys still need to see how people answer their questions.
“So what’s going to happen is a jury is going to pull down the mask and have the face shield," she said. "So, there is still the protection, but you’re going to be able to see the eyes, the facial expression. The things the attorneys definitely rely on.”
Klein said they stopped jury trials back in mid-March of 2020. They’ve had plenty of time to think about this and map it out.
“We also had to figure out how many people we could have in the elevator," she said. "We figured out how many people we can have on the floor. How many people we can have in the bathroom. We had to create staggered dismissal schedule and the arrival schedule to not overcrowd.
We’ve waited a long time from the point when we thought we can do it until now, just to make sure that we take every safety precaution. This Wednesday is our first, back to in-person, Board of Judges meeting. And it was important to us to do that before we actually select a jury. Just to kind of show that we are comfortable.”
There is a rotating schedule of which courtroom is in line to hold a trial that week. There are back-ups lined up if that first judge doesn’t have a trial that week.
Klein said the way she’ll decide what trials need to happen first are for the accused who have been in jail the longest or cases with an alleged victim 14 years old or younger.
Although the jury box won’t have jurors, support staff may sit there as well as one or two visitors, Klein said. She added this may actually make her trials more accessible as they plan to stream them on Zoom and YouTube.
“We have done a lot of work," she said. "I think it’s definitely a safer place than going to dinner, to H-E-B. And we need to do it. Our jail is over populated, the people that are charged with crime have been waiting. The people who are the alleged victims of the crimes have been waiting. Civil law cases have been waiting for their day in court. The family law… we need to start getting back to the new normal. And we’ve been doing everything we can to make sure that the new normal is as safe as possible.”
When jurors are summoned they will complete their panel and COVID-19 questions online.
Klein said there will only be one trial on a floor at any given time. Only one jury selection will go on at a time.
Klein called these changes indefinite. She said depending on who you ask, COVID-19 could become something like the flu, requiring yearly vaccinations. So, she’s prepared for indefinite social distancing.