AUSTIN, Texas - A Travis County judge spent Monday preparing to hold what's believed to be the nation's first full jury trial by video-conference.
The trial involves a small, misdemeanor case but it could have a big impact. The verdict will not only decide the case but could provide a landmark decision for the nation's judicial system.
Courthouse access is limited because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so to address that problem, Justice of the Peace Nicholas Chu has been holding video-conference calls for some of his cases.
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"Since March we've been doing Virtual Court Hearings, doing bench trials where a judge decides the facts of the case," Chu said.
On Tuesday, high-tech justice takes another step with a full jury trial. "From the Texas Office of Court Administration, they're telling me that this is probably the first jury trial by Zoom in the world, so we'll see if this is something that we can use as a tool as the pandemic continues," Chu said.
The case is a Class C misdemeanor traffic offense where the penalty is only a fine. Jury selection starts Tuesday morning with a pool of 30 called. For this case, instead of 12, only six people and one alternate will be selected. Those who need a tech upgrade will get loaner equipment.
Chu says that there are concerns with this though, including keeping the jury's attention. "We've picked up some habits that may be acceptable in a work scenario, but may not be acceptable, in a jury scenario, for example, people checking their phones in the middle of meetings, or checking their emails, things like that. So that's my biggest concern, we have the full attention of the jury," he said.
Chu says there have also been protections put in place to prevent hackers from interrupting the court proceedings.
"We've followed all of the recommendations from the Office of Court Administration that includes certain kinds of settings with this, and also protecting the link with passwords in it and making sure only those who have that link, have it," he said.
A YouTube channel will provide public access to the courtroom.
Mary Rose, a University of Texas at Austin sociology professor who specializes in jury decision making and jury trials, says she is "cautiously optimistic" and that she likes how the county is trying to move cases forward but is not convinced this is the way forward after COVID-19.
"After we see how this one goes, we will know so much more, we will know whether it does or does not save time for example, If it's not, It obviously saves people time getting to the courthouse but I don't know if the actual proceedings and deliberations will be time savers, particular is you are having technical difficulties," Rose said.
Both Rose and Judge Chu agree it is too soon to hold video conference calls for major felony trials.
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