Skype Testimony Valid, Montana Courts Say

     (CN) – A Montana man convicted of animal cruelty cannot overturn his conviction based on the fact that a veterinarian testified against him via Skype, the state Supreme Court ruled.
     Michael Duane was one of three people who stood trial for animal cruelty in 2013 after Missoula police found a dead Australian Shepherd puppy in a Missoula motel room and three others living inside a squalid recreational vehicle.
     Police who investigated the scene found the 17-foot RV parked outside the motel littered with garbage and animal feces and urine.
     There was no water in the RV for the dogs, and they had no fresh air either since the vehicle’s windows were completely sealed.
     The dead puppy that police found wrapped in a towel underwent a necropsy from the local veterinarian.
     Dr. Lindsay Sjolin’s findings revealed that the puppy died of blunt force trauma, resulting in multiple internal injuries.
     Duane and his co-defendants had all been living in the Missoula motel room together. Each defendant requested a separate trial.
     Since Sjolin had moved to California by that time, however, the city requested an accommodation to prevent the doctor from having to travel back to Montana for three different trials.
     With Missoula maintaining that Skype’s two-way video and audio technology satisfies the face-to-face confrontation clause of the U.S. and Montana constitutions, the municipal court ultimately agreed to let Sjolin testify at Duane’s trial remotely.
     After a guilty verdict, Judge John Larson with the Fourth Judicial District Court affirmed his conviction but stayed his sentence pending Duane’s next appeal.
     The state Supreme Court affirmed on Aug. 11, saying live testimony is preferable but not essential where there is “an adequate showing on the record that the personal presence of the witness is impossible or impracticable to secure due to considerations of distance or expense.”
     In the case at hand, Sjolin’s testimony via Skype satisfied the “hallmarks” of confrontation, defined in the 10-page opinion as involving an adversary proceeding, a witness present in real time and under oath, a jury that is able to see and hear the witness, and a witness who is subject to direct and cross-examination.
     Justices Mike McGrath, Beth Baker, Mike Wheat and James Rice concurrd in the lead opinion by Justice Patricia Cotter.
     McGrath also chimed in with a one-page concurring opinion.
     “Advances in communications technology that have far outstripped the average person’s ability to foresee, or even imagine, have occurred at an astonishing pace – technology that the Framers of our Constitution could not have anticipated,” he wrote. “I would hold that the ‘face to face’ requirement of the … Montana Constitution, and the ‘only in the presence’ requirement … are fully satisfied by the use of these real-time, face-to-face communication devices and services.”

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