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Justice by Zoom: Frozen video, a cat — and finally a verdict

An image from a live stream on YouTube shows what appears to be the nation’s first virtual criminal jury trial, with Judge Nicholas Chu, top left, and attorneys in the case in Austin on Aug. 11, 2020.
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The proceeding that appears to be the nation’s first virtual criminal jury trial was underway for just a couple of minutes this week, when a moment occurred that would be familiar to many during the pandemic: a juror’s Zoom video feed froze.

The trial, which was being conducted using the video conferencing platform that has become ubiquitous during quarantines and office shutdowns, ground to a halt with juror No. 5 paused with one hand aloft as if he were taking an oath.

For the next several minutes, the judge and his staff tried to remedy the problem, but ultimately, they had to dismiss the man from the seven-member panel that was hearing the case of a driver accused of speeding in a construction zone. Calli Kornblau was found guilty of speeding but not guilty of the work-zone enhancement.

The glitch was the only major issue during the online proceeding Tuesday in an Austin misdemeanor court, a groundbreaking experiment as courts across the nation seek ways to restart the most fundamental aspect of the criminal justice system. Jury trials have been largely paused by the coronavirus in many areas including Texas.

Courts across the country have moved some proceedings online, but many judges, defense lawyers and public defenders have been cool to the idea of holding virtual criminal jury trials because of concerns about whether the process would be fair to defendants.

Courts dramatically rethink the jury trial in the age of the coronavirus

Officials with the Texas courts have come to the conclusion that cramped courthouses will be able to hold only a limited number of criminal jury trials while providing for social distancing if trials resume in October as scheduled, so they have begun to explore options for jury trials, such as using Zoom.

“You guys are making history just by doing your jobs,” Justice of the Peace Nicholas Chu told jurors at the conclusion of jury selection.

The polished wood panels of a courtroom were nowhere in evidence. Instead, the judge, prosecutors, defense lawyers, defendant and jurors were tiled in video feeds across a computer screen, arrayed like the opening credits in the 1970s sitcom “The Brady Bunch.”

Many participated from home via laptops or iPads, and a cat could be seen frolicking behind one juror. The proceeding also was streamed on YouTube for the public to watch.

Chu, a judge in Travis County Justice of the Peace Court Precinct 5, said in an interview that a traffic ticket was a natural place to test-drive virtual criminal jury trials because the stakes were low and many jurors would already be familiar with traffic court proceedings. The defendant was facing only a fine and court costs, not jail time.

Chu sought the approval of the prosecutors, defense lawyers and the defendant before embarking on the experiment. There were also dry runs to practice using the technology in a triallike setting.

The court bought 20 iPads to lend to any jurors who did not have Internet access or a smart device to participate. It ultimately distributed them to four of the 30 jurors who were summoned for the trial, Chu said.

The proceeding followed a typical trial format with jury selection, opening statements, testimony, closing statements and jury deliberations, but the courts had to re-engineer basic aspects using technology.

Private virtual breakout rooms in Zoom allowed the defendant to confer with her attorneys and the jury to deliberate. Prosecutors and defense attorneys posted evidence using the file-sharing service Box before it was displayed on the jurors’ screens.

Despite the planning, there were small speed bumps: Five potential jurors or jurors had to be dismissed for technical issues during jury selection and the trial. Audio and video feeds occasionally froze.

The trial began with Chu admonishing the jury pool to turn off their cellphones and TVs, ignore social media and find a place where they could be alone. He told potential jurors they had to remain on-screen at all times.

Still, he had to chastise a prospective juror at one point for looking at another screen. Chu said in an interview that his biggest concern with virtual trials was that jurors might be distracted by email, children or something else in their homes.

The facts of the case were straightforward.

A prosecutor said in her opening statement that a Travis County sheriff’s deputy clocked the defendant driving 51 mph in a 35 mph construction zone in March 2018. The woman was ticketed for speeding in a construction zone.

Kornblau’s defense attorney argued in his opening statement that his client was innocent because there were no signs designating the area a construction zone and workers were not present — prerequisites for the work-zone violation. He also said the deputy got the speed limit wrong.

The jury issued its verdict after deliberating for about 15 minutes. Kornblau’s sentence of $50 plus court costs will be deferred as long as she does not accrue more traffic violations in the coming months.

Few court systems have embraced technology as readily as Texas. Since March, the state’s courts have been handling nearly all criminal proceedings online, logging more than 700,000 hours of virtual sentencings, motion hearings and more.

Judges have become more efficient at clearing cases, since some have to travel hours to preside over trials in Texas, and more defendants are showing up for hearings because of the ease of logging on from home, said David Slayton, the administrative director for the state’s Office of Courts Administration.

“We’ve seen tremendous benefits,” Slayton said.

Chu said in an email after the trial that he felt the experiment was a success despite some delays caused by the technology. He wrote that some jurors told him they probably would not have shown up if they had to go to a courtroom.

“This type of proceeding probably won’t be appropriate for serious cases at this time, but I think this trial shows jury trial by videoconference is something that merits further study, especially during this pandemic,” Chu wrote.

Carl Guthrie, Kornblau’s attorney, said he and his client both felt the virtual trial passed muster, despite some issues. Guthrie said he couldn’t yet see a virtual jury trial being staged for a more serious offense. “I think there are obstacles that need to be overcome, but not walls stopping this technology,” Guthrie said.