WILLIAMSON COUNTY, Texas - In Williamson County, in-person jury trials have been on hold since March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Recently, the county was able to hold its first two in-person jury trials, the first in a year.
"It's been a long time since we've been back in court," said Jarrod Smith, an attorney with Smith and Vinson Law Firm in Austin.
Smith has craved to be back in front of an in-person jury since last year. "It was actually about the first week of March of 2020 that was our last jury trial."
When the pandemic hit in mid-March 2020, courtroom trials had to adjust almost overnight.
"When it became apparent the significance of the COVID-19 pandemic, the courts shifted very quickly from relying on an 100% in-person process to an almost 100% virtual process," said Ronald S. Morgan Jr., director of district court administration for Williamson County.
Many cases like bench trials were able to be settled on Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Williamson County was even able to do some virtual bench trials for certain cases.
"But there are some cases that really need to happen in-person and really need the in-person ability for individuals to see a witness in order to evaluate that witness in order to see evidence in order to evaluate that evidence," said Morgan.
It took a whole year to figure out how to hold an in-person jury trial during a pandemic, but Williamson County made it happen and hosted its first two in-person jury trials since March of last year.
Smith was part of one of those trials for a DWI case that came back not guilty. "It's incredibly important that we get back to having jury trials. I mean, there's 1000s of cases that are backlogged for understandable reasons because of the pandemic, but there are 1000s of people that deserve their day in court," he said.
It wasn't back to normal completely. Morgan says the jury selection process and courtroom needed to change. "It's going to look very different," he said.
For starters, the jury summons process was moved completely online and jury selection is now down in a huge room where all 60 potential jurors can sit socially distant. Inside the courtroom also looks different.
"The witness isn't sitting in the witness box like you're used to, they're seated off to the side. The jurors aren't in the jury box, they're seated in the gallery so that we can do social distancing. There's Plexiglas everywhere," said Morgan.
The county plans to continue holding these in-person jury trials. Smith says he believes this is a huge step in the right direction. "I think Williamson County handled it very well. I think Travis County and other counties will probably do something similar very, very soon," he said.