Texas Judge Holds First Virtual Jury Trial in Criminal Case

“Please give your whole attention to your trial,” the judge told jurors. “Don’t be going on Facebook or checking email.”

Jurors are sworn in Tuesday in the nation’s first virtual criminal jury trial in Travis County, Texas.

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — A Texas justice of the peace opened the country’s first virtual criminal jury trial Tuesday, experiencing relatively few technical interruptions that have plagued other online court hearings since the Covid-19 pandemic began.

Travis County Justice of the Peace Nicholas Chu is presiding over the virtual courtroom using Zoom videoconferencing software and is broadcasting the trial live to the public on YouTube. Court proceedings began at 8:30 a.m. in a misdemeanor case against a Texas woman accused of speeding in a construction zone.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys spent the first three hours explaining how to use Zoom and engaged in voir dire by polling potential jurors as to their experiences and biases towards speeding tickets and construction zones. A six-member jury with one alternate was sworn in after 1 p.m. and the trial is expected to last all of Tuesday.

As he was seating the jury, Chu asked jurors to remain attentive even though they are at home.

“Please give your whole attention to your trial,” the judge said. “Don’t be going on Facebook or checking email.”

Assistant County Attorney Afton Washbourne told jurors that “you are part of a historical event.”

Jurisdictions across the United States have been forced to move court proceedings online since stay-at-home orders were imposed beginning in March, with many judges struggling to adapt to the use of videoconferencing software.

In Florida, Leon County Circuit Court Judge John Cooper endured several issues at a virtual hearing in May over a lawsuit against the state’s unemployment assistance system. The plaintiff in the case was removed from the hearing for shouting at the judge and was shouted down by other attendees when she returned. Hackers later broke into the online courtroom and hurled insults at the judge.

Tuesday’s trial was less chaotic, with the only noteworthy technical issue being a juror being dismissed before opening arguments at approximately 2:30 p.m. due to having a poor internet connection. The juror was quickly replaced by the alternate juror. Jurors seemed to follow the judge’s instructions of staying on mute and waving their hands to the camera to answer questions to the group. Judge Chu acknowledged the trial seemed to be “an hour behind schedule” at noon due to the use of the new technology.

Less than 10 jury trials have been held in Texas state courts since in-person courtroom proceedings resumed in June, according to Megan LaVoie with the Texas Office of Court Administration.

Chu said the county is prepared to provide jurors with the technology to participate, telling NBC affiliate KXAN that iPads with online access are ready to be loaned out.

Tuesday’s trial comes three months after the country’s first virtual civil jury trial on Zoom was held before Collin County District Judge Emily Miskel in the suburbs north of Dallas. The summary judgment trial involved a jury hearing a one-day condensed version of an insurance case that resulted in a nonbinding verdict. The decision then led to the two sides entering mediation to try and reach a settlement.

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