Texas court holds first US jury trial via videoconferencing

DALLAS (AP) – The potential jurors appeared on the screen one by one. They confirmed their names and told the judge how they were connecting to the court: on laptops, tablets and iPhones.

There were some wireless problems and problems with the cameras, but eventually 26 Texans in separate boxes raised their hands to the judge and together they swore the juror's oath, starting the experiment of conducting a civil jury trial entirely on Zoom.


The coronavirus pandemic has harmed courts across the country, putting many cases on indefinite hold and leaving judges trying to manage some hearings by videoconference. The delays kept some defendants in jail for longer, exposing them to possible outbreaks. And the virus even hampered the functioning of the Supreme Court, with judges hearing oral arguments over the phone for the first time in the history of the court.

The video test jury held in the Dallas suburb this week may reveal a possible way forward, in which jurors are kept at a safe distance, while cases can continue until the threat of the coronavirus recedes enough to resume some appearance of normal life .

It also raises complex questions about security, a person's right to a fair trial and whether virtual deliberation can prevent 12 people from forming the necessary bonds to do justice.


"Nobody is saying that tomorrow we will start trying serious crimes with Zoom," said the district judge Emily Miskel, who coordinated the technology for the trial. "But I think there are many civil trials in which the parties can agree that this is a good way to resolve it, given the uncertainty of when you will be put on trial by a civil jury."

The Collin County court held the so-called summary judgment – a one-day civil suit with a non-binding verdict – on Monday as an experiment to restart parts of the judicial system that stopped because of the coronavirus. It was about a disputed insurance claim that originally was due to be heard in person in March. According to the National Center for State Courts, which monitored the functions of courts during the pandemic, it is the first remote jury trial ever held in the United States.


Those involved seemed satisfied with the process.

The jury selection was broadcast live on YouTube, but most of the rest was private, because summary judgments are confidential civil procedures, designed to give parties the option to decide before a real trial.

During the selection panel, lawyers on both sides asked people who called to raise their hands in response to questions about possible bias. When a hand appeared on the screen, lawyers asked for follow-up or wrote down the juror's number.

Matthew Pearson, a San Antonio lawyer, said the comfort of their homes seemed to make jurors more receptive to questions. They were attentive when he presented evidence by sharing his computer screen about Zoom, said Pearson, and his company saved money because it did not have to bring an expert witness from Minneapolis.

"Overall, it was a better experience than I expected," he said.

The deliberation proved to be a little more complicated.

The judges were divided into two groups of six and placed in separate virtual rooms, where they could talk privately and look for evidence in the Dropbox folders. They finally returned two verdicts designed to give the parties more information to assess whether they should go to trial.

At one point, things were delayed for a few minutes when a judge who walked away to make a call during a break could not hear the judge calling him back to his computer. The same kind of thing happens in court, Keith Dean, the retired judge who presided over the trial, told others.

Miskel, the other judge, joined the "deliberation rooms" a few times to help juries access evidence, which she said would normally cause lawyers to "freak out". Usually, jurors send notes asking the judge for help and a team member enters the jury room with evidence.

But lawyers fear that virtual deliberation will eliminate casual interaction between jurors, which some consider essential to building the group's trust. And defense attorneys are especially skeptical of the electronic criminal court, where they already struggle to speak privately with their clients during routine remote hearings.

"It would be very difficult, many constitutional obstacles to be resolved for an accused to be brought to a virtual trial," said Randy Gioia, of the Massachusetts public defense agency. "There is no substitute for a three-dimensional face-to-face and face-to-face hearing with a judge."

Security is also a concern. As tens of millions of people turned to video conferencing to stay connected during the pandemic, hackers derailed many calls with threats, prejudiced comments and pornographic images.

If more courts turn to video trials, ensuring that people with little or no wireless connection can serve as a judge would also be a challenge. Rare cases that require juries to be kidnapped may have to occur in person.

Even when cases return to court, the virus may have changed things. Cross-exams will be different if lawyers and witnesses are wearing masks. AND Miskel the suggested courts can mix in person and online – making video judgments, but taking jurors to court to deliberate.

Dean reminded jurors at the beginning of the process that the online configuration made his duties no less important.

"The court came to you," he said. ___

Associated Press writer Alanna Durkin Richer in West Harwich, Massachusetts, contributed to this report.


Follow Jake Bleiberg: https://twitter.com/jzbleiberg

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