Harrison County will impanel its first grand jury, this week, since the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is our new grand jury being paneled; and we are doing that cautiously,” District Clerk Sherry Griffis recently told the county commissioners court.
District Attorney Reid McCain said he and 71st Judicial District Judge Brad Morin have been in discussions about how to impanel a new grand jury safely.
“We’re not going to be packing them in shoulder-to-shoulder like we did when we picked juries (prior to the pandemic),” McCain said in an interview with the News Messenger. “We’ll be practicing all social distancing measures.”
“When people come in, we’re going to run three at a time through, and then we’re going to (sit) them 6 to 10 feet apart, in the courtroom — staggered — and try to have a grand jury this time,” Griffis described.
Griffis advised the commissioners court that she has thermometers ready to take temperatures. She’s also ordered masks and supplies to disinfect the courtroom.
“The courtroom will be wiped down before they come in and it’ll be wiped down afterwards,” McCain said.
County officials are looking forward to impaneling a new jury safely. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the last jury panel’s term was extended an extra three months, like many other courts across the state, to ensure no delay in justice.
“They have three-month terms and we extended it for six months,” explained Griffis. “So this is our first one that we’re going to pick.”
“I think it’ll be really good,” said Griffis.
McCain said some places like McLennan County tried to conduct a grand jury, via Zoom, which posed many challenges.
According to the Waco Tribune, because several defense attorneys had filed challenges over the manner in which McLennan County officials conducted the May 6 grand jury session, McLennan County District Attorney Barry Johnson decided to re-indict all 59 criminal defendants again.
To avoid such challenges, McCain said many DA offices are impaneling grand juries, using social distancing measures instead of having them participate via Zoom videoconferencing from other locations.
“We had been having grand jury in the District Courtroom so that we can safely keep them apart,” McCain said.
“That’s how we’ve decided to do it, which is kind of variation of what some other DA offices are doing around the state,” said McCain.
Since the pandemic started, he said all district attorneys in Regional 10 have participated in weekly meetings for feedback.
“We’ve been having weekly Region 10 meetings, which goes from Grayson County, Collin County, Dallas County, Ellis County and then pretty much along the I-20 coordinator, back north, which is Texarkana, so that’s Region 10,” said McCain. “So we’re collaborating with Dallas County DA, Collin County DA — all around here — and a lot of them are doing different variations of what we’re going to be doing.”
McCain said some other counties have discussed extending their grand jury for another three months, but he’s not certain of how that would work here, in Harrison County.
“I don’t want to wade off into something that might cost us to have to come back to grand jury, which will delay justice,” said McCain. “It will wind up being a waste of taxpayer dollars. So I believe the best bet…after consulting other Region 10 prosecutors and the judge, that we should (impanel) the (new) grand jury.
“We think it’ll be a good, safe way to conduct grand jury,” said McCain. “We’re going to take steps to make sure that our grand jurors are safe and get them in and out as quickly as possible.”
The DA noted that the good thing about having to extend this past grand jury term was having a well-prepared grand jury by the end of the term.
“The first time a grand jury ever meets, they don’t really know kind of what they’re doing; it’s all brand new to them,” he said.
Thus, as a result, prosecutors usually present minor felonies such as drug cases, enhanced DWIs and thefts the first time around.
“By the second and third time, they really kind of know what they’re doing,” McCain said of the grand jury.
“And our last grand jury, since we extended them another three months, they had a lot of experience, so it was easy to work with them, and get things moved through,” shared McCain. “They were asking good questions.”