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Jury Trials in the Post-Covid 19 World

The Covid-19 is pushing most of the economy into the 21st century. Business meetings are conducted over Zoom and other video conference platforms. Shoppers mostly buy from Amazon and other online retail outlets. The Covid-19 is slowly remolding how Americans do business.

The legal industry is no exception. Service of legal documents by e-mail is becoming increasingly common. Court hearings and depositions are being done virtually. Law firms without the capacity to work from home and/or without video cameras may find their cases significantly delayed. However, there is still one ritual that resists the tide of virtual interface: the jury trial.

Trial by Zoom

As mentioned, court hearings and depositions are already being conducted over the internet. Trial by judges can be held by video conference and have been conducted over the phone. Why are jury trials any different?

First, the logistics of a jury trial are far more complicated than any bench trial. A trial where a judge makes a final determination only requires three people at a minimum, the judge and two opposing counsel. On the other hand, a jury trial will require at least nine to twelve jurors; the exact number will depend on the jurisdiction and type of case involved.

The logistics alone would be a nightmare for trial management. The court may not be aware that a juror has technical difficulties until much later in time. Internet connections may breakup during critical witness testimony. The court would have to distribute trial exhibits to the jury online and would greatly impact the court’s ability to control the return of said exhibits. The jury would not be able to deliberate in person and thus could potentially have access to outside influence without the court’s knowledge.

The Legal Challenges of Trial by Zoom

This is all assuming that everyone in the jury pool has a computer with sound and a proper internet connection. The requirements for a virtual jury trial may skewer the jury pool towards younger demographics. However, this is potentially age discrimination and a violation of the requirement that one be judged by a “jury of peers” if the Court knowingly permits such a molding of the jury.

Another potential legal issue lies in criminal jury trials. The Sixth Amendment gives criminal defendants the right to confront their accusers. The late Justice Scalia claimed that he denied the video testimony of a rape victim because his interpretation of the Sixth Amendment is that the accuser must be physically present in the courtroom during trial. It’s difficult to imagine that criminal courts would permit an erosion of rights when a trial could simply be delayed for a few months until the pandemic ends.

However, the solution of delaying a criminal jury trial would also potentially violate the rights of defendants. Criminal defendants are entitled to a “speedy trial” under the Sixth Amendment. Arguably delaying a trial because of outside factors, even for a something as serious as a pandemic, is arguing a violation of a defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights. On the other hand, the purpose of holding a “speedy trial” is to prevent the accused from being held in custody for too long. This is not an issue if jails are emptied and defendants are placed on house arrest due to Covid-19 concerns.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

A criminal defense lawyer is essential in understanding a court’s procedures for a jury trial. If you have experienced severe delay, you should speak to a lawyer immediately to learn more about your rights, your defenses, and the complicated legal system.


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