Jury trials may go virtual in RGV, attorneys share concerns

Local News

Harlingen, Texas (KVEO)—The pandemic has shut down jury trials all across the Rio Grande Valley, creating a backlog that officials say will take a long time to clear up.

RGV counties have not done virtual trials yet, but some attorneys argue they may not be fair for clients.

Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz, has concerns about the delay in jury trials.

“Number one the humanitarian level because we must have people sitting in jail for an ordinate number of days and number two, it is also a financial situation for us because everybody that sits in jail cost the tax payers x number amount of dollars.” said Saenz.

Cameron County has been prioritizing inmates, trying to help those who can’t pay their bond, offering plea deals to get out of jail.

“I’m troubled by that, because it bothers me that if you have the money you can get a bond and get out, but if you don’t have any money to pay the bond you remain in jail.” said Saenz.

One option Texas counties are using is Social Distancing Trials, where the jury meets virtually. Defense Attorney Rick Barrera, says for him the jury is still out about the fairness to defendants.

“Part of the biggest problem part of the constitutional issue in a jury trial is being able to confront your accuser, and being able to have an open forum to have your evidence heard.” Says Attorney Rick Barrera, Barrera Law Firm

Virtual juries, Barrera says would give the judge less control over the trials.

“Jury trial is really most effective when the control of the jury trial is at the optimum, and the ability for the judge to monitor that jury trial and be the gate keeper is at it’s optimum, and over the screen can sometimes limit that.” said Barrera.

There have been attempts in Hidalgo and Cameron Counties to hold in person jury trials but have failed because of COVID, but they hope to try again by the Spring.

District Attorney Saenz says virtual juries don’t work, because jurors can’t see the body language of a witness they are asked to judge on credibility, but says they are a possibility.

“We can’t shut the door on that. If we get to March and April, and we still have not been able to hold an in person jury trial, were going to have to go with Plan B. Plan B would be to have a virtual trial, which I don’t prefer, but we may not have a choice.” Says Saenz

Currently no counties in the Valley offer virtual jury trials.

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