MIDLAND COUNTY, Texas (Nexstar) – Jury trials are being put on hold in Midland County until the end of the month. The decision comes after a number of recent Coronavirus cases in court.
Midland County Administrative Judge Jeff Robnett said that the suspension of jury trials starts on Wednesday, November 10th. The suspension will last about three weeks, until November 29th.
“We don’t want anyone sick and we don’t want to have trials if trials aren’t safe to have,” Judge Robnett said.
This decision to suspend jury trials comes about one week after the largest jury selection in the county’s history.
Judge Robnett said that an unspecified number of people involved in the jury selection and murder trial of David Wilson tested positive for the Coronavirus.
“The decision was based on the fact that there was a Covid outbreak among the people involved in various parts of the trial,” Robnett said. “It was a spreader event. The fact of the matter is we couldn’t have known before. But that’s the way we responded, pulling back on our numbers.”
Wilson is standing trial over the death of Midland Police Department Officer Nathan Heidelberg, who was shot and killed in March 2019.
Jury selection was the largest all year.
“551 people were available and 51 were let go. So it was full,” Robnett said, referencing the juror pool. “My understanding is that it was the most jurors that had ever been brought in for any case, in the history of Midland County.”
A jury of twelve, with two alternates, has been picked.
The trial was expected to begin Monday. However, the presiding judge of that trial declared recess until November 30th because of the postive Covid-19 diagnoses.
Judge Robnett said all judges followed suit with a similar decision to postpone jury trials.
The county did not reveal how many people tested positive with the Coronavirus – citing patient privacy – but Judge Robnett said the positive cases include jurors, lawyers, and administrative staff.
Moreover, the decision to delay was not based solely on the positive diagnoses in the Wilson trial.
“When there was a spike or when we saw there were more Covid cases in Midland, we pulled back and canceled (court) cases,” Robnett said. “And when it cleared up, we would go back to trying cases. That’s kind of what we’ve done now. We simply pulled back again.”
From March to October, Midland County had jury trials.
Judge Robnett said there were many cases that were tried in-person, with pools of approximately 150 jurors. He says he knows of no infections related to jury trials during that time.
“Jurors were more spread out because of Covid: spread out in the room, spread out in the courtroom, things like that,” Robnett said.
Jurors were provided with masks and face shields from March through October, and even given the option to opt-out of jury duty because of the virus.
The recent Covid-19 cases come just as the Midland County court system was loosening its guidelines on the virus this month to include a larger jury pool for all cases.
In the wake of the suspension, Judge Robnett says when jury trials resume again at the end of the month, the court system will continue as they have in past months: with a smaller jury pool.
Judge Robnett said that the suspension will not create a backlog on the docket. He says the court system was able to catch up on delayed trials in recent months.
The date, in which jury trials are set to resume, is subject to change.