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Can the State of Texas Try You at the Jailhouse?

In every Texas criminal trial, the accused is entitled to a presumption of innocence. This presumption includes the right to have a case heard and decided by an impartial jury. It also means that the setting of the trial must not “send a message” to the jury that the defendant should be presumed guilty before hearing and considering all of the evidence.

For example, Texas courts have long held that a criminal defendant cannot be forced to appear at trial wearing prison clothing. Such appearance would strongly suggest the defendant must be guilty of something. On the other hand, the United States Supreme Court has said that the presence of uniformed law enforcement officers sitting directly behind a defendant at trial is not “inherently prejudicial.” And trial judges do have broad discretion in deciding how to conduct a trial. But any practice that “creates an unacceptable risk that the presumption of innocence” is unconstitutional unless it furthers some “essential” state interest specific to that trial.

Texas Appeals Court Reverses Capital Murder Conviction Due to “Inherently Prejudicial” Trial Setting

A Texas appeals court recently weighed in on whether these principles prevent the state from trying a defendant in a jailhouse courtroom. This case, Nixon v. State, involved a defendant charged with capital murder. The trial was held in an annex courtroom in the same building as a county jail.

Before trial, the defense filed a motion to change the venue to the local county courthouse. The defendant maintained that conducting the trial in a jailhouse would “undermine his presumption of innocence, violate due process, and impugn his right to a fair trial and an impartial jury.” The state opposed the motion and insisted the jailhouse courtroom was “more comfortable” for potential jurors and the jailhouse setting would make it easier to “protect the public.” The defense replied that implied the defendant was “too dangerous to transport safely” to the county courthouse, which again would signal to the jury that he must be guilty.

Although the trial judge expressed “some concern about this,” he ultimately denied the defendant’s motion for a change of venue. The judge explained he was concerned about the defendant “comingling with the jurors” in the limited space at the county courthouse, as well as the lack of amenities at the courthouse.

The trial was then held at the jailhouse. The jury found the defendant guilty of capital murder. The judge imposes a sentence of life in prison. The defendant appealed on multiple grounds, including the denial of his change of venue motion.

The Texas Fourth District Court of Appeals agreed with the defendant that forcing him to be tried at a jailhouse courtroom violated his constitutional right to a fair trial. The Fourth District noted it was the first Texas appeals court to address this specific issue. Other state appellate courts were split on whether it was “inherently prejudicial” to hold a criminal trial in a jail facility. The Washington, Oregon, and Ohio Supreme Courts have previously said it is prejudicial. But courts of appeal in Mississippi, California, Virginia, as well as the Utah Supreme Court have held that it is not.

Here, the Fourth District sided with the first group of appellate courts and found that merely holding a trial in a jail facility was inherently prejudicial. The Court pointed to several reasons why. First, trying a case in a building that is clearly marked as a jail, as was the case here, was “akin to the impermissible practice of trying a defendant in prison clothes and shackles,” as opposed to, say, allowing armed guards to sit behind the defendant at trial. The venue itself allows the jury to draw “impermissible inferences” about the defendant’s guilt. Put simply, it is not a neutral or impartial venue.

Furthermore, the Fourth District said that conducting the defendant’s trial in the jailhouse courtroom did not further any essential state interest. The appellate court noted that in other states where jailhouse trials were deemed acceptable, the defendant had “either escaped from prison or were tried in the same correctional facility where they allegedly committed the crimes for which they were charged.” That was not the case here. The alleged “security” concerns raised by the state mostly revolved around the limited space in the county courthouse and the availability of more “modern” technology at the jailhouse. Neither of these concerns were an essential state interest, the Fourth District concluded, and thus could not justify compromising the defendant’s right to a fair trial. He was therefore entitled to a new trial.

Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson Today

If you are facing capital murder or any other serious felony charge, you have the right to demand a fair trial before an impartial jury. An experienced Houston criminal defense attorney can help ensure that judges and prosecutors respect that right. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today to schedule a free consultation so we can learn more about your case.