Harris County resumes in-person jury duty

HOUSTON, Texas -- Harris County District Clerk Marilyn Burgess announced the resumption of in-person jury trials in the county's district courts.

In a Sept. 14 press release, Burgess laid out the precautions in place to try to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 during jury trials, which include ensuring space for social distancing, temperature checks, use of hand-sanitizing stations and the use of face masks.

Jury selection takes place at NRG arena, a venue chosen for its size and ability to house a large number of people safely. Jurors who are selected for jury duty attend trials that take place in a downtown courtroom. To accommodate social distancing needs, some jurors are seated in the jury box while others are seated in the gallery and are given separate areas for breaks and deliberations, according to the Sept. 14 release.

In-person jury trials were suspended by an emergency order from the Texas Supreme Court through Oct. 1 with certain exceptions. Texas courts averaged 186 jury trials per week prior to the pandemic, according to a report released in late August by the Office of Court Administration.

That report also included notes on the 20 jury trials that have been allowed to occur between June and September as well as recommendations moving forward for how jury trials can be conducted, both in person and virtually. A courtroom in Travis County piloted a virtual trial by jury in August, but Harris County officials have not announced any plans to do so.

In Harris County, the suspension of jury trials has caused concerns that an already large backlog in cases awaiting trial is growing.

More than 90 juries have been requested in cases through the end of October, according to the release.

"We urge those receiving a summons to respond by following the instruction to go online to preregister. We need you if the justice system is to continue uninterrupted," Burgess said.

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