Courthouse activity normally slows down a bit around the holidays. After all, few people called for jury duty want to be asked to put someone in prison for the rest of their life at Christmas time.
But 54th State District Judge Matt Johnson was geared up for a trial Monday, hoping to dispose of one more case on his felony criminal court docket.
When the defendant, Richard E. Romero, failed to appear for his indecency with a child trial, the judge who sets 24 cases for trial on any given Monday turned to the next case on the list. Then the next case and the next case.
With 60 prospective jurors waiting Monday morning to begin jury selection, prosecutors in McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna’s office announced over and over that they were not prepared for trial.
Prosecutors announced “not ready” in eight of the first 15 cases the judge called, leaving the court with nothing to try this week.
“There are a limited number of weeks where we can conduct jury trials each year, and I hate to not utilize every opportunity to move cases and allow people to have their day in court,” Johnson said.
Of the first 15 cases on the list, Romero was a no-show, the defense attorney in the second case tried a case last week and was not ready for trial two weeks in a row, three defendants pleaded guilty, and defense attorneys said they were not ready for trial in the other 10.
More frustrating for court officials was the fact that Romero failed to appear at a pretrial hearing last Friday, and his attorney expressed doubt then concerning his whereabouts. That should have prompted the DA’s office to have at least one more case ready for trial since Romero’s presence was iffy at best.
Reyna did not return phone messages Monday. Neither did his first assistant, Michael Jarrett, who was in 54th Court briefly Monday morning when the judge was calling the cases for trial.
Cases are set for trial weeks in advance, with pretrial hearings set 17 days from trial and status conferences in the cases set 10 days from trial.
Most of the cases set for trial Monday in Johnson’s court were part of the DA’s office Crimes Against Children section.
Reyna’s office is divided into trial teams for each of the two felony courts and the CAC section, which tries cases in both courts in alternating weeks.
Reyna, who unseated 20-year DA John Segrest six years ago, said in September 2009 during their heated campaign that dividing the DA’s office was not a good idea and that prosecutors working for him would always be ready for trial.
“Scheduling is not the problem,” Reyna said in 2009. “You have got those issues, but in my mind, the district attorney’s office, like any other law firm, should always be a team, with the district attorney as the leader. I just don’t see how dividing assistant district attorneys into smaller, individual teams is not going to create more division and more conflict in that office.”
Reyna said then that when there are scheduling conflicts, instead of postponing a trial, the case file should be passed on to another prosecutor to try, even at a moment’s notice if necessary.
“As long as there are individuals in the county jail awaiting trial, some for more than 400 days, and costing taxpayers money, there should be no excuses for the DA’s office not to be ready to try those cases,” Reyna said.