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Judges lift trial COVID-19 restrictions in effort to reduce backlog

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Posted at 4:01 PM, Jun 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-21 23:55:39-04

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Nueces County judges removed COVID-19 restrictions that have been in place since 2020, on Tuesday.

The Nueces County Board of Judges voted to lift restrictions it adopted that limit where juries can be chosen, and how many jury trials can be held in the courthouse at a time. The board kept an order that allows judges to hold hearings over Zoom.

Nueces County Jail currently is at 100 percent capacity and 281 inmates have been held for more than 100 days, awaiting trial. Of those 281 inmates, 88 are charged with murder, said 117th District Court Judge Sandra Watts.

The board of judges also received approval for a grant for $900,000, which will help cover the cost of a visiting judge and two prosecutors. The visiting judge will preside over an auxiliary court two weeks out of every month for the next two years. The court is expected to be functional Aug. 1.

Board of Judges Presiding Judge Carlos Valdez said they are looking to focus on prisoners who have been in jail for more than 100 days, initially.

In previous meetings, the board of judges has said it needs three more district-court judges, but hiring those three judges and the staff they need would bankrupt the county.

Watts placed the item on the agenda for consideration and told judges that she believed it was time to go back to normal.

"I think we'll still encourage people to wear masks if they want to," Watts said. "The problem with the docketing and the scheduling is: the seventh floor goes on Mondays and Tuesdays and Wednesdays. So it's very stilted. So, sometimes it didn't flow to allow us to do as many cases as we could."

Nueces County Judge Barbara Canales told district court judges that, while things do have to get back to normal, it was important to "not throw caution to the wind."

Watts told judges she believes the courts can go back to doing more jury trials by removing the restrictions.

As the courts prepare to hold more jury trials, Nueces County First Assistant District Attorney Angelica Hernandez told the board her office is down several prosecutors, and may be losing another three in the next three weeks.

"I understand we are separate entities and the judges, you have to do what you think is right in regard to your dockets, but I just need you to understand — I know, Judge Stith, you only have one prosecutor," Hernandez said. "We will endeavor to do our best, as we always do, and we understand you have to take everything on a case-by-case basis, but we literally may be 16 prosecutors down in the next three weeks."

Hernandez told judges that the issue is a nationwide one, with some of the DA's office prosecutors moving out-of-state to take jobs. Another issue, she said, is that defense firms can pay more.

319th District Court Judge David Stith said the issue isn't just about hiring attorneys, but hiring prosecutors with experience.

"You have prosecutors going up into felony court that you're expecting to try an agg(ravated) assault or, God forbid, a sexual assault of a child, or a murder, that are unfamiliar with the rules of evidence, that are unfamiliar with how you get in a piece of evidence," Stith said. "That affects everybody. That's going to be a 'not guilty' — that person's going to go back out on the street."

Hernandez agreed with Stith, saying it is a DA's office problem.

"We have tried to not do a trial-by-fire with prosecutors," Hernandez said. "We are at that point now. We will have brand new prosecutors — cover your ears defense attorneys — brand new prosecutors that are going to be trying agg assault, DWs, they're going to be trying murder cases that have never even tried a misdemeanor. That is where we are."

Canales said that the Nueces County Commissioner's Court is working to address pay at the DA's office. Last week the court voted to increase the pay of an open position.