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By Whitney Wyatt/The Red River Sun—
CHILDRESS – During the COVID-19 pandemic, the 100th Judicial District Attorney’s (DA) office took precautions to limit the number of people it came into contact with but convicted more felons to prison than normal.
“Although the total number of cases moved were drastically lower, the District Court was successful in obtaining final convictions resulting in pen time for offenders at a much higher percentage than the previous year,” DA Luke Inman said. “I commend my staff on being willing to adapt and improvise during this crazy time.”
During the quarantine, the DA’s office received the fewest number of cases ever presented during any quarter in the past 12 years, Inman said. From April 1 to June 30, 41 cases were moved in District Court with 21 deferred adjudications and 20 defendants sent to the penitentiary. In 2019 during that same time, 177 cases were moved with 31 defendants being sent to the penitentiary.
A total of $97,000 in fines were assessed during the 2020 second quarter with $20,000 being upfront fines which were collected by the counties, Inman added. Another $14,723 in court costs were assessed along with $5,515.97 in restitution.
Inman and Assistant District Attorney Harley Caudle established a protocol and procedure list for the Court, Probation Department, Defense Bar, Clerk’s offices, law enforcement agencies and many more to make this happen. This policy streamlined the everyday approach in continuing to move criminal cases on a regular basis, Inman said.
“Harley and my administrative staff worked hard with our Judge’s office in welcoming new ways to use technology in the courtroom to finalize cases,” Inman said. “The coordination of all the players towards the concerted effort of finalizing cases is a testament to our commitment to removing the criminal element from our community even during unprecedented times like this.”
Since June, the Supreme Court of Texas changed the date when a jury trial could begin three different times, Inman explained. Over the past two months, trials have been set, rescheduled and set again. Court proceedings were halted. Jails had to limit who could even be brought in on criminal charges, and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Institutional Division and State Jail Division denied transports from local jails after defendants were sentenced.
“So how do offices, agencies, businesses, you name it, overcome and accomplish the essential objectives?” Inman asked. “Innovation. There are times in life and in business when you must become innovative to overcome unforeseen obstacles.”
As necessity is the mother of invention, difficult times can unleash a myriad of refinements in the approach of criminal prosecution that actually make it easier and better, Inman explained.
“We were thrust into the world of unknowns like everyone else,” said Inman. “But instead of waiting for normalcy to return, we hunkered down and found solutions to continue to move as many cases as we could.”
There are several players involved in plea hearings: judge, prosecutor, defense attorney and defendant. Then there are law enforcement personnel and bailiffs, clerk’s office employees and probation officers.
“It was a challenge to get everyone involved in a concerted effort moving to pleas via Zoom, but we accomplished that in a very short timeframe,” Inman added.
While business was down, they thrived considering the circumstances, Inman said. The DA’s office, with the approval and participation of 100th Judicial District Judge Stuart Messer, began utilizing the internet-based meeting app Zoom for pleas and hearings to keep everyone in a safe environment, while still moving a substantial number of cases.
Zoom hearings and pleas are still occurring in the 100th District Court, as well as live hearings. Inman said the zoom hearings are beneficial to most defendants and defense attorneys who don’t have to travel long distances for brief court hearings.
“When the opportunity is there, zoom is a form of technology the District intends on using for years to come,” Inman said.