Defense attorney Clay S. Conrad and his client waited for hours outside Judge Ramona Franklin’s courtroom, unsure whether they would be admitted to any indictment.
Franklin previously denied him access to their courtroom and asked him to appear at Zoom. This time around, he brought in more than 10 criminal defense attorneys to stand up for accountability: the public had no access to their legal proceedings in person or online, and Franklin faces a pending legal complaint about what some defense lawyers are calling illegal bail that harms the defendants .
Ultimately, Conrad and his client were both allowed to go to court on Thursday, in contrast to the client standing alone and being defended via Zoom – a defense that Conrad described as inadequate. And to the relief of the defenders there to support them, the judge turned on her livestream so that the public could also tune in.
“It’s almost embarrassing in this country that it would take so much effort to get a judge to obey the law,” said Conrad. “I can’t do my job blindfolded.”
Neither Franklin nor Court Coordinator Aileen Walker, who helps manage the court and its files, returned a request for comment. Bailiff JJ Salinas, who said he had relayed information from the court coordinator, cited the judge’s security concerns about COVID-19 as the reason lawyers are usually kept away from the gallery.
Conrad was first alone in the courtroom when he spoke to the judge – who was out of court and appeared by Zoom – about the proposed indictment for his client Brittney Mayfield. He claimed he was concerned about their constitutional rights and Franklin allowed Mayfield to enter. She let some of her court staff go to keep as few people indoors as possible, but some stayed or returned at various points on the prosecution.
“We’re still in the middle of a pandemic,” she said. “The court takes it very seriously.”
Conrad said he understood the security concerns of COVID but was not at risk of violating the constitution. Some defense attorneys have represented their clients through Zoom as the pandemic progressed, but many routinely appeared at the Harris County Criminal Justice Center to better interact with their clients before and during the performance.
Based on their experience in other courts, the lawyers said that other judges have largely started letting people into their courtroom but are sticking to COVID protocols. If not allowed, online public access is required to maintain open courts, they said.
Salinas told Conrad for the first time on Thursday that he could not appear in person and only speak to the judge about Zoom. He also informed the other lawyers on the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association’s Strike Force – a committee that supports lawyers who they believe are being treated unfairly – that they would not be given a link to the video conferencing platform to watch.
Defense attorney Murray Newman, who heads the strike forces, said keeping the court closed to lawyers and the public creates the impression of inappropriateness.
“When someone tries to hide something, one has to wonder why,” he said.
Salinas told the Houston Chronicle that access to the court was only possible through a window outside the courtroom – a street that allowed view and limited sound. Another bailiff, who was not wearing a mask, previously said the Chronicle was not allowed access to Zoom “because of COVID”.
The courtroom capacity is officially listed as 21, and there were a handful of court staff in the room. At least nine people waiting for appearances sat close to each other on benches in the hall instead of waiting in the court as before the pandemic.
Court officials eventually turned on a live video stream technologically enabled for each county court after defense attorney Kate Ferrell contacted the Harris County clerk’s office and staff of an administrative judge.
Franklin is already being examined by the defense attorneys. They filed a judicial complaint against the judge in August 2020, alleging she routinely revoked bail through informal procedures and re-incarcerated people without notice or reason. In some cases there is no lawyer present.
While Conrad and Mayfield awaited their indictment, another defendant’s mother was visibly angry when she heard that her son would be detained for a $ 50,000 loan, more than what she had already paid to him to rescue. She wasn’t allowed into the courtroom and knocked on the door, angry that she couldn’t come in to speak to Franklin.
Ferrell, a defense attorney who supports Conrad, pointed to these types of complaints as a particular reason why she felt lawyers with defendants must be present before Franklin.
“You have to be in there because your client may not come out,” she said.
Franklin, a Democrat, was elected in 2016 and re-elected in 2020. Their term of office expires in 2024.
Mayfield is charged with misdemeanor and felony in a theft case. Franklin reset her first court setting when she refused to let Conrad in and he was not available from Zoom, he said.
In the reset setting, the indictment did not take place as Franklin told him again that he and his client could not be in the courtroom at the same time, Conrad said. Franklin asked him to file a memorandum, a legal document with arguments backed by case law.
In the memorandum filed on Wednesday afternoon, he argued that Zoom is not always a sufficient place to represent a customer. Lawyers cannot see or hear everything that is going on in the courtroom and they cannot speak privately with their clients, he said.
He added that disallowing his presence violates Mayfield’s rights under the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees the right to effective legal counsel, as well as two sections of the Texas Constitution. One of these sections requires “all courts to be open”.
“It really attacks the entire framework within which you are entitled to effective legal advice,” said Conrad. “This is really authoritarian stuff.”
Since Franklin allowed both the attorney and his client to be physically present at Thursday’s trial, she said Conrad’s reasoning was no longer an issue in the memorandum.
The judge announced the terms of Mayfield’s bond and asked both parties what they would ask for their surety statement, which they already booked at $ 1,500. The primary purpose of bail is to guarantee the return of a defendant to court.
Conrad said he was unaware that there would be a hearing on bonds. This is a formal situation where lawyers argue over loan amounts. Franklin replied that she “always” has hearings on bonds.
Prosecutors asked for a $ 3,000 bail in case of crime theft, but to Mayfield’s relief, Franklin kept her bail where it was.
Unlike their previous appearances, Mayfield and Conrad left the courtroom together.
Gabrielle Banks contributed to this article.