Wheels of justice in Texas slowed down by damage from Harvey
Defense attorneys and prosecutors are worried what that could mean for victims and for jailed defendants waiting for their day in court
Juan A. Lozano
HOUSTON — Damaged courtrooms. Delays in trials. Backlog of cases. A lack of jurors.
Hurricane Harvey's winds and cataclysmic rainfall have slowed criminal cases in Houston and other Texas communities where heavily damaged courthouses forced officials to move court proceedings into whatever space was available, including shuttered shorefronts and even a cafeteria.
Defense attorneys and prosecutors are worried what that could mean for victims and for jailed defendants waiting for their day in court. In Houston, the nation's third largest city, there are 40,000 such cases pending at any one time.
"It is a challenge in a hurricane-ravaged, ground zero place to find a building still standing and available to be able to hold court," said Pam Heard, the district clerk in Aransas County, a Gulf Coast community where Harvey made landfall as a Category 4 storm on Aug. 25 about 180 miles (290 kilometers) southwest of Houston.
The storm displaced thousands of residents and destroyed more than a third of the county's buildings, including its courthouse, which could take two years to rebuild. Until then, a soon-to-be-refurbished hardware store will have to do.
In Harris County, home to Houston and Texas' busiest court system, Harvey's torrential rains flooded the 20-story criminal courthouse's basement and caused water damage on the upper floors. The damage forced nearly 40 felony and misdemeanor courts to relocate to three different buildings — and it could be up to a year before the courthouse reopens.
The result so far: Criminal jury trials delayed by nearly two months, cramped working conditions for hundreds of employees, including judges sharing courtrooms, and courts relocated to buildings that are too small or not designed to hear criminal cases. The Harris County District Attorney's Office had to relocate its 700 employees from the courthouse to 10 different sites in the county.
"We're just having to make the best of it, make adjustments when we see things aren't working," said Susan Brown, the administrative judge of Harris County's criminal district courts.
Officials have tried to manage the influx of people at temporary courtroom locations by having fewer court dockets per week and scheduling these court hearings in the morning and afternoon. Normally, dockets are only held in the morning, she said.
Misdemeanor jury trials resumed this week after a temporary jury assembly area was set up in a county building's cafeteria. Jury trials in felony cases were to resume Monday, but there will only be two courtrooms available to try cases with defendants in custody instead of the nearly 40 that could be normally used, Brown said.
The lack of jury trials for two months in the nation's third most-populous county is "a big deal," said Houston defense attorney Julio Vela.
"We're all kind of waiting and watching to see if there is any delayed justice," Vela said.
After Harvey hit, the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued a joint order asking all courts in the state to temporarily suspend all deadlines and procedures in criminal and civil cases. The order is in place through Wednesday.
Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said her office is aware of the concerns and has taken proactive measures, including dismissing several hundred low-level cases and, in certain types of cases where the threat to the public in minimal, agreeing to personal recognizance bonds that allow defendants to not pay bonds in exchange for a promise to appear in court.
"There are still a lot of people in our jail and we need jury trials to resume," Ogg said.
In Orange County, about 110 miles (177 kilometers) east of Houston near the Texas-Louisiana border, jury trials remain on hold after its courthouse was damaged, forcing courtrooms to be relocated to different buildings. If repairs take a long time, officials will look at finding a temporary building so jury trials can resume, according to Orange County Judge Stephen Carlton.
In Aransas County, Heard said she doesn't know if enough people will show up once jury duty resumes in January because so many people were displaced by the storm.
"It's not like anybody would be doing anything to avoid jury duty. They are just plain old not here," she said.
Longtime local attorney Terry Collins said it could take years before the county and its legal system get back to normal. Collins is currently living in an RV with his wife in front of his law office after their home was destroyed by Harvey.
"There is concern (about) clients not getting justice in their cases because of the delay in the system and the process being disrupted," Collins said.
Heard, the local court clerk, said judges are aware of these concerns and are hearing motions from defendants in custody about reducing bonds or granting personal recognizance bonds so they can be free while waiting for their cases to be resolved.
"Everything that we have to do for the courts, we're getting it done, not under ideal conditions," Heard said. "But we're able to operate and the courts continue."