Last month, Austin was home to the very first U.S criminal jury trial to take place through a video conference. The trial, which drew nearly 1,000 YouTube viewers, received more than a fair share of scrutiny and certainly more attention than traditional traffic courts usually receive.
The scrutiny is understandable, considering technological advances and coronavirus concerns make virtual trials a viable option – not just in Austin but around the country. To that end, court administrators and other authorities are examining the virtual case in Austin to look for lessons that can be applied in future cases.
Off to a Rocky Start
The trial began with a few technical issues. That’s not surprising given the new nature of the proceedings. To start, many jurors logged in with their names visible, a problem since jurors are supposed to remain anonymous. Additionally, one juror was dismissed due to a connectivity issue with their court-provided iPad.
The presiding judge, Nicholas Chu, chided a juror for looking to the side and reminded the jurors they are to remain focused on the task at hand and refrain from multitasking.
Regardless of the initial mishaps, Chu praised the process in an interview. “This could potentially show that for courts that are holding off on bench trials, there may not be a need to hold off,” Chu said.
Indeed, many observers believe the experiment could provide a model for other courts to restart jury trials during the coronavirus pandemic. At a minimum, the trial could be a workable option for trials that are deliberated by a judge only.
Criticism of Virtual Criminal Court
Do virtual trials serve defendants as well as courtroom proceedings?
Not so, according to one attorney, who is the former acting Dallas County District Attorney. She said watching the trial made her think “how powerless I would feel as a defense attorney to actually be effectively navigating this system with my client because they’re not with me. I’m not there for their questions, I’m not there for their emotions. So, are they really getting their right to counsel?” This emphasizes the need for experienced defense counsel who can work to ensure your rights are protected no matter what type of trial you might have.
According to Chu, the court came away with a few lessons for future trials. For example, juror check-in likely will not be broadcast in the future to ensure that juror’s names are not visible on the screen.
Some incidents, such as audio cutting out and distracted jurors, can cause a “less than ideal scenario,” warned a University of Texas criminal law professor. However, virtual trials may be a sensible option for low-level offenses with unanimous consent and when the defendant agrees to waive some rights.
Virtual trials may not work as well for more serious offenses such as domestic violence cases. There were concerns that virtual court may be “sacrificing things for efficiency, where the cost isn’t worth it.”
Despite concerns, the traffic trial went on as scheduled. From jury selection to jury verdict, the entire trial took place in one day. In the end, the jury delivered its verdict, to which Chu proclaimed – “history has been made.”