Though it isn’t the “packing the courts” some politicians fear, for McKinney’s Jeff Willis it’s more than scary.
“I was very uncomfortable, borderline scared,” the 58-year-old former firefighter said. “In this environment with COVID cases spiking? Packed in a room with 65 to 70 strangers? I mean, something just wasn’t right about it. Didn’t sit well with me at all.”
The cause of Willis’ angst was his required appearance Nov. 12 in a jury room for Republican Judge Ben Smith’s 380th District Court in Collin County. According to Smith, it was the first jury trial in his court since February and the sixth in the Collin County courthouse since it resumed in-person activities in October. Everyone was wearing masks and, Willis said, staying “pretty close” to the authority's suggested 6 feet apart.
But in the midst of a pandemic only showing signs of strengthening, it was business as unusual.
“There was a lady freaking out because she hadn’t been out of her house since March other than to get groceries,” Willis said. “She did not want to be there. I didn’t want to be there. I think everyone was like, ‘Hey, what are doing here?’ I’d just as soon take responsibility for my own health rather than some court do it for me.”
Despite cases soaring nationally and surrounding counties such as Dallas still reluctant to hold in-person jury trials, Smith’s criminal court is back in session.
The Texas Department of State Health Services said there were nine deaths in Collin County Nov. 14-15, and 401 cases added this week to push the area’s total to near 22,000. According to state officials, 218 people in Collin County have died from COVID-19 and approximately 300 are hospitalized.
"I think everyone was like, ‘Hey, what are doing here?’ I’d just as soon take responsibility for my own health rather than some court do it for me.” – Jeff Willis, called for jury duty
“I can’t speak to what other counties are doing, but in Collin County, we are strictly complying with the orders of the Texas Supreme Court and the guidance issued by the Office of Court Administration,” Smith said in an email to the Observer Wednesday afternoon. “We are also working in conjunction with the Collin County Health Authority. I am not aware of any person who became sick following a trial.”
In a normal year, Texas would hold 6,000 jury trials between Easter and Thanksgiving. This year, there have been approximately 50.
There are attempts to both keep the system from being backlogged for years and preserving a defendant’s right to a speedy trial. In May, Collin County state District Judge Emily Miskel oversaw a nonbinding civil case via Zoom. Dallas County recently mailed 2,000 jury summons for civil trials and state District Judge Maricela Moore’s court has experimented with a hybrid model in an attempt to get the wheels of justice somewhat back in motion.
In a pandemic, however, judges bear an extra responsibility to keep courthouses safe. Promising vaccine news gives hope for 2021. But Collin County and Smith are apparently confident of dodging COVID now.
On the county’s website is a July 1 notice outlining procedures that include “100 jurors to the Central Jury Room for voir dire for 1 case per day.” It says capacity for the room is 600 persons.
“It is certainly not my intention to force anyone who has COVID-19-related health concerns to participate in a jury trial,” said Smith, who was recently elected to a third term. “When a citizen is summoned for jury duty, the district clerk's office permits them to reschedule their service if they have health-related concerns about coming to the courthouse. Those who do appear are medically screened when entering the courthouse. I readily excuse anyone over 70 and anyone else who expresses health concerns or who objects to serving because of the pandemic. Throughout the process, we observe social distancing, face coverings, and frequent sanitization. Plexiglass barriers have also been installed throughout the courthouse. When appropriate, we also permit some participants to appear remotely.”
In his days as a fireman, Willis said he was never selected for jury. But now an electrical contractor, he was picked as an alternate to a felony criminal case.
“It’s my civic duty, and I’m compelled to be there,” he said. “But you shouldn’t have to put your health at risk to fulfill your obligations.”
Two days after he was selected, Willis’ wife took ill with a fever and body aches. (Her COVID test was negative.) His daughter, who lives in Austin, is nine months pregnant. Before the trial began Monday, he phoned the court’s bailiff to talk about his apprehension.
“It was a whole ordeal,” Willis said. “He wanted a copy of my wife’s COVID test. I had no choice but to push back.”
Instead of showing up in person, Willis said he emailed the court with a detailed synopsis of his wife’s illness, his family’s delicate health situations and an explanation of his concerns. As of Wednesday afternoon, he had yet to receive a response.
“I want to be there, but under the right circumstances,” Willis said. “Sorry, but for me it’s safety first and family first. I think it’s a bad decision that the court is open and they’re calling in people for jury duty. It’s like we’re all guinea pigs, but the consequences could be fatal.”
Admitted Smith, “I am obligated to preserve, protect, and defend the constitutional rights of every person who comes before my court. However, I am not blind, nor insensitive, to the risks posed by gatherings such as jury trials. If people do not feel safe coming to the courthouse, perhaps it is time to discontinue jury trials until people feel safe.”