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Defendants, Lawyers and Justice Suffer as Pandemic Shuts Down Trials

The court system has been stalled by COVID-19EXPAND
The court system has been stalled by COVID-19
Dallas Observer

For 16 years, Bill Price has successfully defended the city’s prostitutes, drug dealers, drunk drivers and the occasional client accused of murder. But against COVID-19 and a dormant criminal justice system, even the gold medal weightlifter-turned-litigator is powerless.

“This virus has crippled the courts,” says the veteran defense attorney. “There are no jury trials. We don’t have the ability to meet face-to-face with prosecutors to hammer out plea deals. With the economy, people simply have less money to spend on attorneys. Everyone is being hit hard by this.”

While residents have spent the last six months working from home, binging Tiger King, toasting happy hour via Zoom and watching cardboard cutouts sit in our seats at sporting events, Dallas’ courts have ground to a halt. The county hasn’t held a jury trial since March. Nonviolent cases that need services rather than punishment are still being processed off the docket, but those charged with more serious crimes are on exaggerated pause.

“It’s frustrating for everyone,” said Herschel Woods, assistant district attorney and chief prosecutor in the 292nd District Court. “But we just can’t move forward. You can’t call in 1,000 jurors and expose them all to COVID-19.”
The result is that people, innocent until proven guilty, are sitting in jail longer.

Herschel Woods, assistant district attorney and chief prosecutor in the 292nd District CourtEXPAND
Herschel Woods, assistant district attorney and chief prosecutor in the 292nd District Court
Mark Graham

“They simply can’t get to have their day in court,” said long-time Price colleague Tim Menchu, “because there is no court.”

Price and Menchu, who has operated his own criminal defense firm in Dallas since 1996, fear no jury trials will take place in Dallas until 2021.

“In Dallas County, I doubt it,” Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot said last month. “I think we’re all apprehensive getting back into the courtroom.”

Maintaining 6 feet of distance between individuals to slow the virus’ spread is impractical inside a courtroom and impossible in a cramped juror box. Jurors are often elderly and at greater risk from COVID-19, making the resumption of jury trials even trickier. The juror information page of the county's website continues to collect cobwebs, not updated since a March 23 message announcing all jury trials and jury duty were canceled through May 8.

Unique legal obstacles call for unprecedented measures. The U.S. Supreme Court recently conducted oral arguments by phone. Despite constitutional and logistical worries, trial by Zoom became real when Austin jurors found a driver guilty of reckless endangerment after watching the trial via video from their living rooms, bedrooms and home offices.

A resolution could be on the horizon. The Texas Supreme Court recently extended bans on in-person jury trials, but only until Oct. 1. In the meantime, Dallasites charged with crimes will continue to be subjected to lengthy delays or even indef inite time in jail, often exposed to the deadly virus in enclosed quarters.

“At times,” Price said, “there doesn’t look like there’s any light at the end of the tunnel.”

COVID-19 complications can be devastating even to those free of the virus.

Both defense attorneys point to the case of a man represented by one of their colleagues who was arrested on a murder charge last October. He sat in Lew Sterrett jail until his trial date arrived in late January. The night before, however, the lead prosecutor was hospitalized after a car accident. The trial was postponed until April. Enter COVID-19.

The defendant was released from jail but required to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet that he hasn’t taken off for five months. There is no new trial date.

“A lot of us [defense attorneys] have examined his case, and we agree the guy has a great chance at getting not guilty,” Menchu said. “But right now, he’s not being afforded the opportunity to be exonerated. He’s having trouble getting a job. Can’t even get an interview. He’s out of jail, but pretty much locked inside his house. Sad thing is, his case is not unique. There are hundreds going through the same thing all over Dallas.”

At the federal level, in the Federal Correctional Institution in Seagoville, for example, the six-month lockdown continues to prevent attorneys from meeting face-to-face with clients. Of all Dallas courts, Price and Menchu believe, only U.S. Northern District of Texas Chief Judge Barbara M.G. Lynn has held a jury trial since March.

“We’re all at a standstill,” Price said.

Attorney Bill Price has successfully defended the city’s prostitutes, drug dealers, drunk drivers and the occasional client accused of murder. But against COVID-19 and a dormant criminal justice system, even the gold medal weightlifter-turned-litigator is powerless.EXPAND
Attorney Bill Price has successfully defended the city’s prostitutes, drug dealers, drunk drivers and the occasional client accused of murder. But against COVID-19 and a dormant criminal justice system, even the gold medal weightlifter-turned-litigator is powerless.
Mark Graham

Being handcuffed as a defense attorney is the last thing Price envisioned.

A star quarterback at Duncanville High School in the 1980s, he toyed with college before becoming a firefighter/paramedic. Some attorneys are ambulance chasers. He rode them.

“One way or another, I’ve always liked helping people,” Price said. “It’s in my blood.”

As a 6-foot, 220-pound athlete, he was always into physical fitness, but he admits he became obsessed with strength training during his 14-year career at Duncanville’s Central Fire Station. At age 24, he finished in second place in powerlifting at the 1989 Texas Firefighters Olympics. At the inaugural World Firefighter Games in Auckland, New Zealand, a year later, he won the gold medal and title of “World’s Strongest Fireman” by squatting 622 pounds, benching 369 and deadlifting 551.

“It’s an achievement I’m still proud of,” Price said. “But by that time, I was already wanting to do something else to use my brain instead of my brawn.”

He enrolled in the University of North Texas in 1994 with a triple-major in sociology, psychology and public administration. His initial interest in law was sparked by his then-wife, who was an attorney.

“She begged me not to do it,” he jokes. “She said I’d be happier remaining a fireman. Some days she was right, but I’m hard-headed.”

Introduced to her colleagues while still working as a firefighter, he started a part-time job at a Dallas firm in the summer of ’98. One day at the fire station, a call came in for an auto accident. Price jumped aboard the engine and arrived on the scene to find one of the injured was a client he was representing in a divorce case.

“Wow,” the injured woman remarked. “How’d my lawyer get here so fast?!”

Price opened his law practice but just two years later accepted an invitation from friend Steve Keathley to become the first assistant district attorney for Navarro County. In 2004, however, his itch to defend the desperate returned.

“Being in the DA’s office, I was helping people in that some of them were victims of crimes and whatnot,” Price said. “But it wasn’t the same. There’s just something about giving people a voice that otherwise would be silent that appeals to me.”

He returned to Dallas, reopened his office and resumed making clients and sometimes friends out of types other people would be scared to be in the same room with. His client includes court-appointed defendants who can’t afford to pay for an attorney themselves.

“I have a soft spot for those discarded by society,” Price said. “The majority of my clients are poor, and they get accused of some horrific things. But most are really good people. Because of the hands they’ve been dealt, they’re not afforded a chance. Mark Twain said it best: ‘The lack of money is the root of all evil.’ But everybody is entitled to a defense.”

Menchu, who has collaborated with Price for 15 years, said he often turns to him as his fresh set of eyes.

“He’s a great communicator, but he also has this way of looking at things,” Menchu said. “He questions everything. It sounds silly, but he has this fresh perspective. Even if a police report says something, he’ll look at it outside the ordinary lines and make sure it says what it’s supposed to.”

Price doesn’t always win, but he has earned the respect of his peers.

“He’s highly ethical,” said Woods, who has routinely opposed Price in court for 12 years. “He’s a hard negotiator and a zealous advocate for his clients. I appreciate that. We have our disagreements, but they’re not personal.”

Like most Americans, Price, 56, is being cold-cocked by COVID-19.

With bars closed, there are fewer drunk drivers and DWI arrests to defend. With almost a half-million Dallasites unemployed during the pandemic, there is little money budgeted to appear in court. With the rarest exception, there is no court.

Bottom line: Price’s business has dropped 50 percent in 2020.

“I’m spending a lot of time on the phone, playing bill collector,” he admits. “The worst part of my job. I hate it.”
Until jury trials return, Price, Menchu and defense attorneys across the city will continue engaging in what they describe as gunfights without bullets.

Price, who has 15 clients awaiting jury trial, represents one inmate who has sat in jail for nine months because Gov. Greg Abbott ruled that during the pandemic those accused of violent crimes or with a past conviction for violent crime are ineligible for personal, non-cash bonds. One client was kept behind bars an extra month after posting bond because he spent time in the area of the coronavirus outbreak at Lew Sterrett. Another is stuck in jail unable to get his court-approved “diligent participation credit” that would reduce his sentence because, since March, “diligent participation credit” programs have been put on hold.

“This virus and the accompanying ramifications again reveal how our legal system disproportionately and negatively affects the poor and people of color,” Price said. “It’s a travesty what’s taking place.”

Without personal interaction with prosecutors, the attorneys complain that pleas are difficult to negotiate.

Attorney and Price's colleague Tim MenchuEXPAND
Attorney and Price's colleague Tim Menchu
Mark Graham

“It’s challenging, to say the least,” Menchu said. “Sometimes you can convey things in person that don’t come across as clearly in an email or text or even a phone call. But mainly, jury trials are our way to pressure prosecutors and hold their feet to the fire. Without that in our arsenal, our bargaining power has been diminished. In this economy and with people less able to hire a good lawyer, deals are being accepted that shouldn’t be.”

Woods, who often finds himself on the other side of the bargaining table from Price, agrees the system is struggling to adapt.

“Look, we deal in people, and the lack of human interaction between attorneys makes it difficult,” he said. “With felony cases, there are obviously very serious implications. And we’ve lost the nuance and the emotional factors. We’ve got all the video software, but you can’t make up for human contact. It’s a recipe to get lost in translation.”

Said Price, “Add it all up and it’s not a stretch to say that COVID-19 is sending innocent people to jail.”

Delivering further stress, there are varying motivations and schedules in play. While prosecutors such as Woods are paid regardless of when a case is resolved, court-appointed attorneys are only compensated upon completion. Without trial dates, there are no deadlines for plea deals or, in some cases, not a reason to even pick up the phone.

“All the difficulties of our job,” Price said, “are being exacerbated.”

Price and his wife live as empty nesters in a modest neighborhood in Bedford. He doesn’t wear flashy suits, and he commutes to his co-op office in Oak Lawn in a pickup. He is not regularly on TV ranting about high-profile clients. He is a solo practitioner, not backed by a big-bankroll firm.

“I feel for the guy,” Woods says. “He’s just trying to make a living and help our legal system keep moving along, and he can’t do his job because of this virus. He’s having to sit on cases, and that’s not good for anyone.”

Until jury trials resume, Price’s business, lacking any marketing and advertised via word of mouth, remains fully vulnerable to the pandemic.

“The way I go about it isn’t lucrative by any means, but it’s very rewarding doing what I think is right,” Price said. “It’s a steady paycheck. I mean, it used to be. Before this.”

Whether first responder or public defender, Price’s defense never rests.

Unless, that is, COVID-19 objects.

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