Last week, two of our attorneys tried a case in federal court in front a jury.
Not only that, the trial had multiple defendants.
Yes, a jury trial with three defendants during a pandemic.
“The trial marked the first time since the pandemic that jurors have been called to hear a federal case with multiple defendants in North Texas,” said Defense Attorney Benson Varghese, who tried the case with partner Christy Jack. “It was truly a trial without precedent – everything from jury selection to jury deliberation was different.”
Jack said it felt fantastic to be back in front of a jury again – mask and all.
“It was so surreal to be arguing in front of a masked jury,” she said. “But there’s nothing I love more than being in trial. There’s no substitute for being live and in person.”
The trial was held in U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor’s court, which is located in the Eldon B. Mahon Courthouse in downtown Fort Worth. Judge O’Connor put numerous safeguards in place to allow for social distancing in the courtroom, even with three defendants. The defendants on trial included a doctor and two pharmacists who were prosecuted in connection with an opioid pill mill.
Everyone was required to wear masks. The 12 jurors were socially distanced, with some seated in the jury box and others seated in chairs in front of the jury box. Each defendant was seated at a separate table with his or her attorneys, which were six feet apart from the other tables.
Jack joked that the prosecution table was perilously close to the lectern, however.
“The only hiccup came when, in the midst of some animated cross-examination, I put my hand on the government’s notebook on their table,” Jack said. “When I apologized, I instinctively touched the prosecutor’s shoulder. Unfortunately, I doubled down on my mistake. My family has dubbed me the worst social distancer ever.”
Most people seemed to be satisfied with the protections in place. During jury selection, one prospective juror expressed concern about potentially exposing his infant to COVID – and the long daily commute to the courthouse. He was excused. (Unlike state court where jurors come from one county, jurors for federal court come from the federal division – which in this case was made up of eight different counties.)
Spectators were also allowed in the courtroom during the four-day trial, as long as they wore masks. Most of the court watchers were other attorneys who are representing other defendants indicted in the case. The case involves 49 co-defendants.
“The rest of the attorneys came to see the real life logistics of trying a case before a jury in the midst of a pandemic,” Jack said.
Varghese and Jack said friends and family were surprised to learn that they were trying a case in federal court. Most people assumed that jury trials were not happening anywhere in Texas.
That’s true in state court, where in-person jury trials are prohibited by the Office of Court Administration until at least April 1 unless special permission has been granted. The federal system, however, has continued to operate, adjusting accordingly to the rise and fall of COVID-19 cases and the challenges that come with it.
For example, the attorneys said jury deliberations were delayed on the final day of trial because a juror got called to get vaccinated.
“That’s a first — a trial schedule revolving around COVID vaccinations,” Varghese said. “Definitely, it’s a sign of these times.”