The justice system doesn’t easily adapt to changes, but cases are moving online because of pandemic related delays. These are unprecedented changes. What we know so far?
Some courts suspended jury trials for a while at the onset of the pandemic, while others continued conducting fewer without any health safety issues. However, a surge in COVID-19 cases recently necessitated orders for courts in some districts to completely suspend jury trials, while others have continued with suspensions already in effect.
Juries across the country deliver thousands of verdicts that hardly ever make the news, but the coronavirus pandemic has assured some cases did. The reason for this was that they were held remotely by video conferencing.
Pioneering jury trials
In August 2020, a Collin County state court became the first to conduct a virtual criminal jury trial over Zoom. Jury selection took place on YouTube. This was a summary trial with a non-binding verdict that was later settled in mediation.
A pioneering return to jury trials, after months of suspension, returned to Florida in August 2020. In a battery trial, an exotic dancer was awarded $354,000 and the verdict was made over a Zoom conference.
Presiding over the trial was Florida 4th Circuit Court Judge Bruce Anderson. “All of us have a passion for jury trials and making sure the 7th Amendment is protected,” he said after the trial.
The trail was a product of months of dedicated work and was fully streamed from voir dire to the verdict.
Remote proceedings – practical considerations and core concerns
There are both detractors and supporters of remote proceedings. On the one hand, they protect public health, but others worry about their effect on verdicts. For those already in detention, getting their case heard remotely can prevent them from having to spend longer in jail than necessary.
- Public access to court proceedings is considered important by some people, and this privilege has now vanished. These volunteers monitor hearings and hold prosecutors and judges accountable. Court watchers say their absence in courts erodes the trust of the public and can also lead to worse outcomes for defendants.
Access to the public on virtual hearings has been made easy by the courthouse of San Francisco with a live stream for remote watchers. This is one of the courts that leads when it comes to bringing transparency to courts, and it participates in the Cameras in the Courtroom Pilot Project.
- Another core concern is the advantage bigger law firms have over smaller ones. They have more money to spend on stable internet, better equipment, and good lighting.
- Online security is always a concern and Zoom; the most popular application used, initially had major security flaws. Zoom also maintained meetings were end-to-end encrypted in their definition, but that was a false description.
- Credibility and connecting within a courtroom are critical in reaching a verdict according to most attorneys. They feel that witness credibility is better when assessed first hand, and not remotely.
This may be untrue because recent research in Canada has shown it is easier to spot a liar when they cannot see all the physical details of the speaker.
- Some court proceedings are easier over Zoom, like pre-trial case management meetings, but most feel that after the crisis subsides, there will be no room for remote jury trials.
- Another area of concern is juror participation. Courts are reliant on local residents for that, and access to reliable internet might be a problem for some people called to jury duty. Some feel a solution to the problem would be to have individuals go to government offices specially set up for this purpose, allowing them to participate in isolation. Jury participation appears to increase when people are given a choice of appearing remotely according to the National Center for State Courts.
- Remote juror distraction seems to be another reason for concern. In a courtroom, jurors are not influenced by external information, and many worry they may struggle to concentrate or may take proceedings less seriously. However, after the Collins County summary trial, Judge Miskel collected first-hand reports from the jurors. Jurors reported to her when they were physically present in a courtroom, it was hard for them to see witnesses because of the angle they see them from and the distance. They said everything was clearer on Zoom.