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Criminal Justice

With Jury Trials Set To Begin In Bexar County, A Backlog Has Officials Asking for Patience

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Joey Palacios / Texas Public Radio
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Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales

Jury trials are set to begin next week in Bexar County after being put on hold for more than 14 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The county is asking for patience as the trials resume June 1.

The backlog of criminal cases waiting for trial has risen more than 70% in Bexar County, according to the county’s administrative judge.

The courts will resume with one felony trial and one misdemeanor and one civil jury being chosen each day. Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales said it could take months or longer for his 225 prosecutors to catch up.

“Hopefully not years, but theoretically it could take several years to catch up to where we were pre-pandemic,” said Gonzales.

He added there are 50,000 felony and misdemeanor cases awaiting trial.

His office sent a letter to victims of crimes and their families asking for patience.

“What we’re telling them is please do not lose hope. Please be patient with us because it takes a lot of participants to accomplish bringing them justice,” said Gonzales.

The district attorney’s office has requested more money for staff in next year’s budget, which Gonzales said could help address the backlog.

Bexar County Commissioner Justin Rodriguez said he would support a number of strategies to abate the backlog, including additional district attorney and court staff, tapping federal dollars and requesting a state visiting judge.

“Absolutely, this is an important function of the county... it’s a core function,” he said.

Years of backlog wouldn’t be acceptable, said Rodriguez, but nearly all government functions were delayed by the pandemic. Evaluating and addressing them all will take time.

In a normal year the threat of a jury trial looms over defense teams, pressuring them to plea bargain. That threat was absent in 2020, and adds to the backlog. While not falsely inflating it, Gonzales predicted this would see a reduction of cases in a shorter amount of time.

Rodriguez, who is a licensed attorney, agreed saying that the incentive isn’t there until the trial is set.

“I think that will start to chip away at some of the backlog and that’s been a big impediment in terms of moving cases because there's been no threat of a jury trial,” he said.

More drastic measures may be needed as backlogs are being seen across the state. Pending at the legislature is legislation co-authored by Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston) that would create several new criminal district courts across the state. That includes the backlogged Harris County court system, which hasn’t seen a new court created since 1984 despite a 232% increase in case filings, according to Harris County commissioners court.

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