On the morning of July 19, several hundred Brazoria County residents appeared for jury duty in downtown Angleton, a fifty-minute drive south of Houston. After excusing those with valid exemptions, district clerk officials collected questionnaire cards from the potential jurors and retired to a back room. If they followed district clerk Rhonda Barchak’s standard procedure, which her attorney described last week to Texas Monthly, they then divided the cards into residents of Pearland (the county’s largest city) and non-Pearland residents before further subdividing each stack into white and non-white residents. From these four stacks they assembled jury panels, also known as venires, for each of the week’s trials.
Among the trials that needed a jury that week was the State of Texas v. Darrell Anthony Adell Jr. The 32-year-old former Dow Chemical supervisor was charged with the 2019 murder of Trisha Rodriguez, the mother of Adell’s then-two-year-old son. (The trial was postponed for more than two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.) According to district clerk records obtained by Adell’s attorney and reported here for the first time, his panel of potential jurors consisted of 102 Brazoria County residents—71 white and 31 non-white. The final jury of 12 had a white majority, with no women or African Americans, according to several individuals who attended the trial, including a local reporter and relatives of Adell. Brazoria County is 43 percent white, 31 percent Hispanic, 15 percent Black, and 7 percent Asian American. Adell’s father is Black and his mother is white. (The Brazoria County district attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the composition of Adell’s jury.)
Now Adell is requesting a new trial. Fewer than three weeks after Adell’s conviction, district attorney Tom Selleck released a statement acknowledging that jury panels may have been illegally assembled in the county. “Based on the information provided to date, the District Attorney’s Office believes jury trial panels may have been assembled in a manner inconsistent with applicable statutes and law,” Selleck said. Barchak immediately resigned; her chief deputy, Cayla Meyers, was fired. Two days later, Selleck announced that the Texas Rangers Public Integrity Unit would be investigating how Barchak assembled jury panels.
Barchak’s attorney Chip Lewis told Texas Monthly that his client, who served as district clerk beginning in 2011, had been assembling jury panels by race and residence since 2015. He contended that such a system resulted in a more “representative cross section” than sorting the jurors randomly, as required by state law.
Adell’s is merely the first of what could be hundreds of requests for new trials based on Barchak’s race-based jury impaneling system. Adell’s family hired Houston defense attorney Stanley Schneider to handle their motion. At a public hearing before Brazoria County district judge Terri Holder on Friday, Schneider argued that Adell’s Fourteenth Amendment right to due process was violated by Barchak’s highly unusual method of jury impaneling. “There was a methodology of jury selection in Brazoria County based upon race and residence,” Schneider argued in his opening statement. “What I believe we have here is a structural due-process violation that rises to structural error, and undermines the very integrity of the process.”
The Brazoria County courtroom was packed to capacity with civil rights activists, family and friends of Adell, and members of the defense bar—many of whom are considering whether to request new trials for their own clients. Schneider called several witnesses to substantiate his claim. Among them was Tracy Read, who has worked as a bailiff in Brazoria County’s 412th District Court since 2018. Read testified to observing Barchak and her deputies regularly taking juror cards into a locked room in the courthouse. On the several occasions he was able to see into the room, he noticed multiple stacks of juror cards. But he didn’t grow suspicious of the practice until jury processing moved to a nearby gymnasium during the pandemic for social-distancing purposes. Because the gymnasium had no locked room, Read could better observe Barchak’s practice of dividing juror cards into stacks.
In August, Read privately inquired about this practice to two district clerk employees, Rhonda Hammonds and Helen Hall. While Hammonds refused to answer his questions, citing her fear of losing her job, Hall told Read about Barchak’s system of dividing jurors by residence and race, rather than randomizing the selection. (Neither Hammonds nor Hall responded to an interview request.) Disturbed by what he learned, Read reported this information to district attorney Selleck and to two Brazoria County judges, Justin Gilbert and Edwin Denman. “Jury panels are supposed to be random,” Read testified. “Race should have nothing to do with it.”
While Selleck and Gilbert did not respond to interview requests, Denman confirmed to Texas Monthly that Read, a longtime friend, had alerted him to Barchak’s system, of which he had previously been unaware. “If Tracy Read says something, I would take it to the bank,” Denman said. “He is one of the most honest, patriotic people I have ever known in my life.” Read’s whistleblower complaint appears to have prompted Selleck to release his August 25 statement about jury irregularities and ask the Texas Rangers to investigate.
At the hearing, Schneider also called Barchak to the stand, where the former district clerk repeatedly invoked the Fifth Amendment to avoid answering questions about how she impaneled juries. Adell’s attorneys did manage to successfully subpoena the audio recording of an interview Barchak held with the Texas Rangers. The recording was not played in open court, and it appears that Judge Holder did not consider it because it is also evidence in a grand-jury investigation into Barchak’s actions. But Schneider, who has listened to the recording, said Barchak told the Rangers that she had sorted jurors by race and residence. The Rangers’ investigation is expected to conclude by the end of October. Its findings will be presented to the grand jury.
Barchak’s former chief deputy, Cayla Meyers, was also subpoenaed for the hearing but the subpoena was never served. (The reason for this was unclear.) Meyers, who is campaigning to replace her old boss as district clerk in next year’s election, instead spent the afternoon at the Freeport Police Department Blue Santa Golf Tournament. Hammonds, the district clerk employee whom Read talked to, was likewise subpoenaed but not served. One witness who did appear was Donna Starkey, the former municipal judge who was appointed by the Brazoria County Commissioners’ Court to replace Barchak in late August. Under questioning, Starkey acknowledged that no juries have been impaneled in Brazoria County since Barchak resigned. Her office is working with Tyler Technologies to develop an automated system that will create jury panels randomly, but that system remains “a work in progress.”
At the hearing on Friday, Brazoria County prosecutors argued vehemently against granting Adell a new trial. Even if Barchak’s system was flawed, it was a “harmless error,” contended prosecutor Kyle Jones. The courts must balance the defendant’s motion for a new trial against “the interest of the public here, including the community at large here in Brazoria County, as well as the people who were directly affected by the death of Trisha Rodriguez,” Jones told the court.
Judge Holder evidently agreed. On Monday evening she informed Schneider that she would be denying the motion for a new trial. Schneider is appealing the decision to Texas’s First Court of Appeals. “I’m disappointed,” he said. “It appears the court did not consider the contents of Barchak’s statement [to the Texas Rangers].”
“If you’re just picking out all the old white people for the jury because you think they’re more likely to find someone guilty, you’re leaving out a huge section of the population,” said Brazoria County defense attorney Sandra Oballe. “The fact that they’re admitting [the jury impaneling] wasn’t random means there was error.”
County and state civil rights activists are calling on the Department of Justice to take over the Barchak investigation, saying they don’t trust the local district attorney’s office—which Barchak’s attorney said knew about her system—or the Texas Rangers. “I think you need an outside authority conducting the investigation,” said Texas NAACP president Gary Bledsoe. “I’m sure the district attorney’s office has an incentive to want to make sure that their cases stick. But you need to implement a proper remedy, even if that means retrying a lot of cases.”