Rosie Peña thought her daughter’s 2017 homicide in Houston was a closed case from the start. Linda Cardona’s boyfriend told police he shot her in a domestic violence incident at home, and Ricardo Olivarez pleaded guilty more than two years later. Then, he withdrew his plea and a judge released him on bond. The criminal case is still working through the court system, the Houston Chronicle reports. Olivarez is one of 1,301 defendants awaiting resolution on murder or capital murder charges in Harris County’s courts. The cases have piled up over the past three years, starting with Hurricane Harvey’s closure of the courthouse and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Jury trials have been delayed until at least October, and even those could be limited, adding to the frustration for all involved in the process. “There’s no faith in the justice system,” said Veronica Smart, Cardona’s sister. “There’s no justice system, not like that.”
Even before Hurricane Harvey and COVID disrupted the system, the courts hovered around 1,000 defendants with unresolved murder or capital murder cases. That number has since risen to 1,301 defendants as of early July. The state has prohibited jury trials until Oct. 1, with some exceptions, and the county is still determining ways to resume trials safely when that day comes. The threat of jury trials is what drives cases to resolution and pleas, furthering the backlog, said Assistant District Attorney Joanne Musick. The backup has long irked Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, who said nationwide attention on law enforcement practices also needs to stretch to the courts. The cases go back years. Steven Hobbs, a former security guard accused of raping or killing six prostitutes, tops the list as the Harris County Jail inmate with the longest wait for trial: He was arrested in 2011.