Hidalgo County’s first pandemic jury trial a learning lesson

The live arraignments of the men accused of participating in a drive-by earlier this year that killed a 6 year old girl, which was the first high profile in-person proceeding in the same courtroom. (Monitor Photo)

The devil was in the details during Hidalgo County’s first jury trial since the onset of the pandemic more than a year ago.

For instance, state District Judge Noe Gonzalez remarked during a break in the trial that he and his staff were continually finding small, important details as the proceeding progressed — like how to feed the jury.

Before the pandemic, Gonzalez said the court would often order a sandwich platter for jurors.

Social distancing protocols, however, made that impossible.

Instead, each juror received an individual meal and the panel was spread out between Gonzalez and neighboring state District Judge Marla Cuellar’s jury rooms.

Small details like this played out in the background during 34-year-old Fidencio Castillo Cosme’s murder trial.

At the conclusion of the weeklong trial, that jury found Cosme guilty of stabbing 16-year-old Armando Torres IV to death on Sept. 28, 2020, and sentenced him to 85 years in prison.

That same courtroom was the scene of an emergency Board of Judges meeting on March 16, 2020, called by Gonzalez, who serves as the administrative judge.

The courtroom that day was packed to the edges with judges, attorneys, various court and clerk staff, prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation officials and media.

The Hidalgo County Board of Judges met March 16, 2020, to discuss COVID-19 restrictions to the court system. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

An uncertain time had beset the Rio Grande Valley — the coronavirus’ arrival was inevitable but at the time no one could accurately predict the hardship the region would face.

The Board of Judges was one of the first entities in Hidalgo County to enact strict social distance protocols inside the courthouse while laying the foundation for remote proceedings conducted through video-conferencing with judges, people held in county jail, people out on bail and their attorneys.

Those protocols, which have been modified multiple times since the pandemic, are still in place with judges being able to implement social distancing and masking requirements in their courtrooms.

The authority for the judges to do this lays in the Texas Supreme Court, not Gov. Greg Abbott, who does not have the authority to supersede those orders because of the separation of powers.

The current order extends to Oct. 1.

In June, however, as those falling ill or dying from the virus began to decline, the Board of Judges acted on discretion given to them by the Texas Supreme Court to hold in-person proceedings.

The first such proceeding was the June 15 arraignment of four men accused of participating in a drive-by shooting on Feb. 23 that left a 6-year-old girl dead.

To hold this hearing safely, which happened in Gonzalez’s courtroom, staff put the defense and prosecution tables together facing the judge.

The four suspects and their four defense attorneys were separated by seven movable plastic barriers.

Meanwhile, that same month, the Hidalgo County District Clerk’s Office began sending out summons for jury duty to members of the community.

And by July, the courts had three panels of 100 potential jurors spread out over two days — as opposed to all potential jurors coming on a single day.

During a regularly scheduled Board of Judges meeting on Tuesday, Gonzalez said all of the jurors said they were comfortable.

To safely hold the panel, court staff used minimal health protocols, 3-foot distancing and masking.

“We have not had any negative complaints at all,” Gonzalez said.

The jurors were summoned for four potential trials, including Cosme’s murder trial.

This would be the only trial that actually happened.

Argument and evidence in that case began July 14.

To keep the hearing safe, plastic barriers wrapped around Gonzalez’s bench to his court reporter and to the witness stand.

Those movable plastic barriers used in the June 15 arraignment were spread across the front of the jury box and the bar that separates the court from the audience area for the public.

Chairs in this area were spread 3 feet apart in three rows.

To maintain social distancing for the jury, half of them were in the jury box while the other half were on one side of the audience area.

Like feeding the jury, the parties continually found little details impacting the proceeding.

For instance, during a trial evidence is submitted to the court as exhibits, and when approved by the judge the court reporter takes the evidence and organizes it and prepares it to be available for the jury.

Because of the transparent barrier in front of her, she had remarked how she didn’t have the amount of room for the evidence she was accustomed to having and it was creating an issue.

Then there was also defense attorneys making sure Cosme had a mask that wasn’t jail orange during the trial.

On the second day of trial, they told him to keep the black mask in his trial pants pocket before being transferred back to jail so he had it the next day.

During verdict and sentencing deliberations, Gonzalez sealed his courtroom for the jury so that the panel had more liberty and space to move around and examine the evidence.

And, after the week-long trial, that jury made its determination of Cosme’s guilty and sentenced him.

A wider look at the courtroom during the first in-person jury trial since Feb. 2019. (Monitor Photo)

At Tuesday’s Board of Judges meeting, Gonzalez said that overall, from jury summons to Cosme being sentenced, the first jury trial in Hidalgo County since February 2019 was a success.

“Kudos to everything that happened in July,” he said. “And I say that for those things that were a success and those that weren’t, because we learned a lot.”

And going forward, the judges are planning for more jury trials.

Gonzalez says he was speaking to the District Clerk’s Office about summoning 400 to 450 people, which would likely result in about 100 people showing up.

The idea is to have week-long jury selection spread out over two days with trials commencing the following week.

The administrative judge will be working on a trial schedule so that if multiple juries are picked, the trials would be on opposite sides of the courthouse.

The next round of summons will be for late August followed by trials in early September, if panels are picked.

However, Gonzalez also noted during the meeting that “the numbers don’t look good.”

As Cosme’s trial commenced on July 15, cases again are rapidly increasing in Hidalgo County because of the delta variant and because people are not getting the vaccination.

This last week alone, the county announced more than 1,000 positive cases.

So while the judges continue to plan to move forward, they are also monitoring this upward trend in pandemic-related deaths and positive cases.