Jury trials in most courts in the Denton County Judiciary are canceled for the rest of January as a precaution because of the latest COVID-19 spike.

The Denton County Courts building on McKinney Street is home to the county’s district and county courts. On Friday, the county court judges formally decided to reset their January jury trials for February, while some district courts are moving forward with trials.

Jurors will still meet on Thursdays for the grand jury, District Attorney’s Office spokesperson Jamie Beck said.

“The county courts had already stopped having jury trials; then they just solidified it on Friday,” Beck said. “It’s up to the judges’ discretion. They run their own kingdom, and sometimes it’s day by day or week by week.”

Jury trials were put on hold for most of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that continued into 2021. While jury trials in Texas could resume last summer, per the Supreme Court of Texas’ guidelines, it was still up to the judges if they wanted to proceed.

“We agreed to reset all jury trials for the month of January in the county courts,” Judge Susan Piel, the administrative judge for the county courts, said. “We’re hoping that the latest COVID numbers will show evidence of peaking and getting better, and then we can resume. We hope this is a very temporary pause in jury trials.”

The latest surge of cases reached a new high Monday when Denton County Public Health announced 2,070 new cases of COVID-19. It covered three days’ worth of reporting, and DCPH Director Matt Richardson said Monday the high case load was a result of a lot of current test results coming through at one time.

DCPH on Wednesday estimated 12,967 county residents were actively infected with the coronavirus.

Piel said she and the other county court judges also made the decision to reset trials because none of the defendants in their cases are sitting in jail awaiting trials, unlike with the district court judges. She said county court defendants are all out on bond.

“If we had somebody that was in jail and postponing trial would’ve meant that person had to wait in jail longer, that would’ve been a consideration,” she said.

Judge Bruce McFarling, the administrative judge for the District Courts, said the 16th District Court and 158th District Court aren’t holding jury trials for the rest of the month. He said the other judges are continuing at a slower pace because some defendants are in jail, and Child Protective Services cases have certain deadlines they have to meet.

McFarling said some judges are factoring in what kind of case they’re trying and how long ago it was filed to decide whether to continue.

“We’re hoping this sharp spike [in cases] will drop very quickly,” he said. “The biggest factor in going back to jury trials for me and the others is for the numbers to come down.”

He said this was a proactive measure so they wouldn’t have to declare a mistrial in case a juror gets sick in the middle of a trial and has to call out sick.

“You have a case that’s going to take say two weeks,” McFarling said. “So what do you do if your juror gets COVID? We reset it to next week in the middle of the trial. What happens if another juror or witness gets it? Right now with so many people testing positive, it just seemed like the prudent thing to do so we wouldn’t have to try these cases two and three different times because we’ve had to declare a mistrial.”

ZAIRA PEREZ can be reached at 940-566-6882 and via Twitter at @zairalperez.

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