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Texas Court Holds Jury Trial Over Zoom With Traffic Crime Case

Screenshot of Zoom jury trial.
Travis County Commissioners Court
Via Associated Press
Travis County Commissioners Court has launched what the state says is the nation's first virtual jury trial in a criminal case. The misdemeanor traffic case is being broadcast live on YouTube.

The jurors appeared on screen from their living rooms, bedrooms and home offices. Juror 11 took notes as a sheriff’s deputy testified about giving a speeding ticket. Juror 18 occasionally looked away as a white cat scampered across her couch.

They gathered on a video conference call Tuesday in what Texas court officials said is a national first — a virtual jury trial in a criminal case.

“You’re here today for jury duty in a different way,” Judge Nicholas Chu said at the start of the trial. “That’s jury duty by Zoom.”

The Travis County misdemeanor traffic case is the latest experiment in how to resume jury proceedings in a criminal justice system that’s been crippled by the coronavirus pandemic. It was greeted by lawyers and legal experts as a low-risk step forward, but one that could imperil defendants’ rights.

Nationwide, the virus has put many court cases on indefinite hold and left some defendants in jail longer, possibly exposing them to outbreaks. It has forced judges to hold hearings via video conference and even led the Supreme Court to hold oral arguments by phone for the first time in its history.

In Texas, fewer than 10 jury trials have been held since state courts resumed in-person proceedings in June, according to Megan LaVoie, a spokeswoman for the state judicial branch. She and Chu said Tuesday’s jury trial was the first to be held virtually in an American criminal case.

The trial of Calli Kornblau, an Austin-area nurse charged with speeding in a construction zone, was broadcast live on YouTube. At some points, there were more than 1,000 people tuned in to hear testimony about traffic rules and the workings of police laser speed readers.

Chu cautioned the jurors that the unusual setting made their work no less serious, warned them against using Google to search about the case and forbade them from posting about it on social media. He asked for their patience with technological “hiccups” and apologized for the proceeding taking much longer than expected.

Soon before 5 p.m., the lawyers finished their arguments and the jury was sent to a private virtual room where they could look at the evidence and deliberate. They took about 30 minutes to find Kornblau guilty.

Her case comes after another Texas court held an experimental jury trial in a civil case in May.

Defense attorneys have raised constitutional and logistical concerns about e-court for criminal cases, saying they already struggle to speak privately with their clients during routine hearings held remotely.