Texas court holds jury trial in traffic crime case over Zoom

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A judge’s gavel is shown in a file photo. (Credit: iStock / Getty Images Plus)

DALLAS (AP) — A Texas court on Tuesday launched what the state says is the nation’s first virtual jury trial in a criminal case.

The case began with potential jurors popping onto the screen in a virtual Travis County courtroom before being separated out to complete surveys and receive training on how to use Zoom, a video conferencing app.

The misdemeanor traffic case is being broadcast live on YouTube and is the latest experiment in how to resume jury proceedings in a criminal justice system that’s been crippled by the coronavirus pandemic.

“You’re here today for jury duty in a different way,” Judge Nicholas Chu said. “That’s jury duty by Zoom.”

Chu cautioned the potential jurors that the unusual setting made their work no less serious, warned them against using Google to search about the case and forbade them from posting about it on social media. He asked for their patience with technological “hiccups.”

Nationwide, the virus has put many court cases on indefinite hold and left some defendants in jail longer, exposing them to possible outbreaks. It has forced judges to hold hearings via video conference and even led the Supreme Court to hold oral arguments by phone for the first time in its history.

In Texas, fewer than 10 jury trials have been held since state courts resumed in-person proceedings in June, according to Megan LaVoie, a spokeswoman for the state individual branch. She said Tuesday’s jury trial would be the first held virtually in an American criminal case.

Later Tuesday, the six jurors chosen through the virtual selection process were expected to hear arguments and reach a verdict in the misdemeanor case of an Austin-area woman charged with speeding in a construction zone.

The case comes after another Texas court held an experimental jury trial in a civil case in May. But defense attorneys have raised constitutional and logistical concerns about e-court for criminal cases, saying they already struggle to speak privately with their clients during routine hearings held remotely.

Legal experts say the pandemic requires courts to strike a tricky balance; they must advance cases to give people speedy trials and prevent an overwhelming backlog while preserving defendants’ rights.

Whether trial by Zoom can achieve this equilibrium is unclear.

Daniel Medwed, a professor at Northeastern University School of Law, said one concern is that video won’t allow jurors to assess witness’ credibility through demeanor and body language. Another is that it falls short of the constitutional guarantee that defendants can confront witnesses.

There are also questions about whether the lack of physical gathering fundamentally changes the nature of jury deliberation. And a conviction through such a trial might run into trouble on appeal, said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School and former federal prosecutor.

“It’s a grand experiment,” said Levenson. “Whether or not it will comply with the constitution still remains to be seen.”

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