Lawyers are used to virtual deposition, but what about virtual juries?

In 2021, the normalization of virtual meetings has exploded across every industry, ours being no exception. While lawyers have been conducting depositions remotely for years, the rise of virtual juries has the legal field divided with some questioning their effectiveness and whether or not they’re here to stay. 

With the new wave of COVID-19 cases still disrupting the US legal system, a closer examination of the way that jury trials have been, and will be conducted is required. 

Jury trials in a pre-pandemic world

Before the world had ever heard of Coronavirus, US legal system cases that went to the jury had been conducted in person before a 6-12 member jury. A structured process was performed with the facts of a case presented to a jury of peers who would then decide if a person was guilty or not guilty of the charge they were facing. 

The jury plays a major role in the trial and is in charge of examining the evidence presented and weighing the facts. They’re also forbidden to discuss the case with anyone else and aren’t even allowed to read, watch, or listen to outside news or discussion regarding it. The presence of a jury has always been monumental in our justice system and is an integral role in determining a defendant’s innocence or guilt. 

How the justice system has adapted

Like everyone else in the world, the justice system has been forced to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many courts have decided to suspend or delay trials. However, other states have moved forward with jury trials by using technology to conduct virtual jury trials. While these trials have certainly been efficient, many legal professionals are questioning their effectiveness and credibility. 

Benefits of virtual juries

Beyond the obvious benefit of social distancing, the main plus of using technology to conduct trials is that the legal system is able to continue moving forward. Instead of backlogging cases and prolonging sentencing, cases have been able to be tried and finalized. Many courts have become convinced that virtual hearings are a more efficient use of time and, therefore, are pushing for them to stay. 

Currently, counties that are conducting jury trials virtually have found success in issuing iPads to jury members and providing access to Zoom for video and Box for exhibits. All parties have to consent to the use of a virtual jury before proceedings can begin and participation is optional. 

The cost of virtual hearings

However, not everyone is on board for staying remote and questions have been raised about the cost of these virtual jury trials. While most lawyers agree that some trials can be handled efficiently without meeting in person, the main point of contention is that of jury trials. 

Technology

As anyone that has used technology can attest, issues can arise which can be distracting and even dangerous during a trial. Already, instances such as wonky filters or power outages have caused arguments to be suspended. In far more serious situations, abuse victims are forced to testify remotely while in the same house as the accused. 

Pre-trial

Before a trial can even be conducted, the selection of a jury that will be remote is proving to be difficult for many courts. In some states, if a juror doesn’t have access to reliable internet, they’re dismissed. This exclusion raises a red flag with many attorneys wondering if juries will be made up of only upper and middle-class individuals making a fair trial by peers more difficult. It’s also harder for lawyers to observe a potential juror’s demeanor when not in person leading to aggravation during jury selection. 

During trial

During the trial, attorneys complain that virtual jurors have attention issues and that the in-person element is critical when presenting the facts of a case. 

Being remote, it isn’t easy for a court to see the whole witness such as their facial expression or countenance. Exhibits aren’t as impacting and documents aren’t as effective. Trial lawyers have a harder time assessing the jury’s reactions and connecting with them. 

Should virtual juries remain post-pandemic?

Considering that COVID-19 cases are still prevalent, it’s safe to say that virtual meetings and trials are here to stay for the foreseeable future. If your county is one that is experimenting with virtual jury trials, there are several tips that can help alleviate any issues before they arise. 

  • Conduct yourself at the same level of decorum that you would as if physically present. Make sure that you are physically presentable from head to toe. 
  • Fully understand how to use advanced features such as sharing your screen. You’ll be using this when presenting evidence. Make sure that you are only sharing the portion of your screen that you want others to see. Practice makes perfect when it comes to this tip. 
  • Mute yourself when not speaking to eliminate distractions and feedback. 
  • Have your team turn their video off unless they’re active. If anyone is active, be sure that their video is on to make sure everyone can connect with them. 
  • Have your computer or phone set up in a separate room free from distractions. 
  • Use earbuds to prevent household noise. If a juror, this is extremely crucial so that the highly sensitive and confidential information is not being overheard by anyone around them. 
  • If anyone has any problems, the host needs to be alerted immediately so no one is missing part of the argument. 

These tips for operating remotely should be practiced by everyone involved with the jury trial to help eliminate technology issues and distractions that frequently occur with virtual meetings. 

While most attorneys would prefer to return to in-person trials, it’s likely that those will be further delayed until the pandemic further subsides. However, by practicing proper online etiquette and helping your team prepare, virtual jury trials can still be effective and serve their purpose in the meantime while lessening the number of backlogged cases in the system.

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