[Editor’s note: The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted all aspects of normal life, from canceled events to disrupted school years, to visitor policies at nursing homes and hospitals and intake procedures at jails and detention centers across the nation.
This series of stories will focus on how the pandemic has impacted the judicial system, including the district court, county court, local law enforcement and the jail.
This story is part one of three, which will run in Sunday editions of the Levelland & Hockley County News-Press.]
When the pandemic first began impacting Texas in March, the Office of Court Administration began issuing guidance for courts, lawyers and staff on how to go about court proceedings.
Following that, the Texas Supreme Court issued a series of orders that impacted how the district court, and others, are able to process cases in a timely manner.
Angela Overman, District Attorney for the 286th District Court, said these orders have had an impact not only on the court’s proceedings, but also on the ability of the court to serve justice.
However, she is still optimistic that the courts have been and will continue to be able to prosecute cases with a little creativity.
“COVID-19 has created an extremely frustrating set of circumstances,” Overman said. “A challenge that I believe we can overcome, we just have to be resourceful.”
She understands the virus is something that should be taken seriously, but that the impact it has had on the courts system is serious, too.
“While it’s important to protect the community from the spread of a fatal virus, namely COVID-19, it’s also important to ensure people have access to the court system and that individuals have the right to trial by jury and have the right to have their grievances heard,” Overman said.
In the most recent order by the Texas Supreme Court, no court in the state can hold a jury proceeding, including jury selection or a jury trial prior to October 1.
“We have a constitutional right to a jury trial but we haven’t had one because we’re not allowed to,” Overman said.
Currently, Hockley County is holding three suspects for capital murder at the local jail. One of whom was arrested nearly a year ago on August 31, 2019.
Overman said while the office has been able to work through the cases as possible, the court cannot move forward with court proceedings until after that date.
Additionally, attorneys and clients have a more likely chance of being granted a continuance in cases due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the risk of exposure.
She said this gives defense counsel a better advantage in cases because as a former defense attorney, she knows a commonly used tactic is to delay a case.
“The name of the game for most defense strategies is to delay, delay, delay,” Overman said. “Witness die, evidence gets lost, victims change their minds. This is doing nothing but making it more challenging for me.”
Along those lines, Overman said she has had several victims of crime come to her office and sign affidavits to not prosecute a suspect in a case due to unforeseen circumstances, which are sometimes directly related to the pandemic.
“There have been several aggravated assault cases where victims have contacted us or appeared in this office to sign affidavits that they no longer desire to prosecute the case,” Overman said. “And, the reason for that have to do with financial strain. Either their husbands have been laid off, child support issues, because they need to be able to receive child support but can’t if the person is locked away.
“These issues have existed prior to COVID-19, but COVID-19 has markedly increased the desire of victims to basically back out of prosecution,” Overman said. “And, there have been some cases where I took that into account, but also let them know there is still going to be punishment and we still prosecuted.”
Not only has the pandemic had a negative impact on the office’s ability to prosecute, but it has also had an impact on the office’s ability to collect evidence.
“Some defense teams, because they are state-funded, are not permitted to search a house or go into a house to take a look or inspect the premises visually,” Overman said. “Also, we’ve had defense attorneys who are not able to review important evidentiary material that can only be viewed in this office.”
One thing the pandemic has afforded the office that has been a benefit for the time being is the ability to utilize Zoom for arraignment hearings and pleas.
“Zoom has been a benefit, and if we can continue using Zoom in the future that would be a big help,” Overman said.
In the past, the jail where the inmate is housed out of is responsible for transporting the inmate to the courthouse for any proceedings. This takes up time and resources for the department, as there are certain procedures and protocols that must be followed any time an inmate is taken out of the jail.
Usually, there are between 10 to 15 inmates who are transported at one time and require multiple trips back and forth between the courthouse and the jail.
“Now, we don’t have that issue and arraignments and simple pre-trial matters can be taken up via Zoom and it is very expedient,” Overman said.
Although the office is still capable of conducting business thanks to Zoom, Overman said the fact that jury trials are off the table definitely hinders her negotiating ability.
“As far as having that trial setting in place so that I can communicate with defense attorneys about a plea expiration date or we’re going to trial and your case is number one–that has been absolved, so to speak,” Overman said.
She said in some cases, the district attorney’s office is not willing to compromise due to the nature of those cases.
“I’m not willing to compromise my standards for what is right in order to move cases,” Overman said. “Some of these need to be tried, there isn’t a plea bargain I can see that serves justice, and only having a jury trial or members of the jury determine guilt and punishment is fair and right.”
Overman said when she was first appointed district attorney by the governor last year, and then officially elected in March, there was already an existing backlog of cases the office was trying to move. She said the pandemic has added to that backlog.
“The office was already delayed and this has caused a bigger backlog,” Overman said. “We had 27 resolutions for cases in March at the introduction to COVID-19. In April we had roughly 18 resolutions and in May we had about 10.”
The pandemic has also hindered the ability for the district attorney’s office to hold grand jury hearings and to get individuals indicted so the office can begin working on the prosecution of those cases.
The grand jury for July was canceled due to new orders by the Office of Court Administration and a new grand jury date has been set for later this month.
“We intend on having another grand jury in August and I intend on continuing to move these cases,” Overman said.
Overman said as soon as the office and the entire judicial system as a whole can get back to prosecuting cases the better for the office, and better for the community as a whole.
“COVID-19 has affected our constitutional rights, our constitutional freedoms and the whole judicial process,” Overman said.