Potential jurors popped onto the screen one by one. They told the judge how they were connecting to the court: on laptops, tablets and iPhones.
Twenty-six Texans in separate boxes swore the juror’s oath, beginning a jury trial entirely over Zoom, the Associated Press reports.
The pandemic has crippled courts nationwide, putting many cases on indefinite hold and leaving judges managing some hearings via videoconferencing. The delays have kept some defendants in jail, exposing them to possible outbreaks.
The jury-trial-by-video in suburban Dallas this week could reveal a possible path forward in which jurors are kept safely distanced while cases are allowed to proceed until the coronavirus threat has receded.
While courts now frequently apply multimedia, the Dallas video-only trial raised complex questions about security, a person’s right to a fair trial and whether virtual deliberation might prevent 12 people from forming the bonds needed to hash out justice.
“No one is saying tomorrow we’re going to start trying serious felonies over Zoom,” said District Judge Emily Miskel, who coordinated technology for the trial. For now, video trials may be limited to civil cases.
This week’s trial over a disputed insurance claim was the nation’s first remote jury trial, says the National Center for State Courts. Those involved seemed pleased with the process. Still, lawyers worry that virtual deliberation cuts out the casual interaction among jurors that some see as essential to building group trust.
“It would just be too difficult, too many constitutional hurdles to clear for a defendant to be brought to a virtual trial,” said Randy Gioia of Massachusetts’ public defender agency.
“There is no substitute for an in-person, face-to-face three-dimensional hearing with a judge.”