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Effect of Remote Hearings and Trials on Criminal Cases

Many lives have been turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic, and this includes the lives of defendants facing criminal charges. Across the country, courts have had to pivot quickly to balance the constitutional rights of defendants – including the right to a speedy trial before an impartial jury, the right to confront witnesses and accusers, and the right to counsel – with the new world we find ourselves in. 

Here, we discuss the effect of the use of remote technology on criminal cases. 

A New Normal? Courtroom Videoconferences

Some courts have turned to videoconferences, but not every court is equipped or on board with this quite yet. In North Carolina, jury trials have been suspended until August 1, 2020 (at the earliest). While no jury trials have been held remotely, some hearings, however, have been conducted online by video or teleconference in North Carolina. 

Hearings

Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, Cheri Beasley, has issued various orders over the past few months making videoconference technology available for certain hearings. Broadly speaking, if a defendant’s rights are impacted by the proceeding, the defendant must either waive the right to an in-person hearing, or it cannot be conducted remotely. 

Jury Trials

Many hearings have been successfully conducted during the coronavirus pandemic, but what about jury trials? Criminal jury trials pose a very tricky issue. Can a defendant have a fair trial, without his constitutional rights being violated, over Zoom? So far, North Carolina has not held any jury trials remotely. However, because we do not know how long the coronavirus pandemic will last or what the future holds, it is important to look into the various effects a remote jury trial could have on a criminal case.

Here are just a few of the many effects to consider:

  • Physical Evidence: In many cases, whether it is a weapon, clothing, or something else, physical evidence is shown to the jury. It is essential that the jury see this evidence up close, which cannot be done via video. 
  • Attorney-Client Communication: Effective assistance of counsel is a constitutional right. What happens when an attorney and defendant are separated? They are unable to communicate with each other, ask questions, clarify statements, and work on their defense during the trial if they are not sitting together. 
  • Technical Difficulties: Anyone who has been on a videoconference knows that technical difficulties are all too common. During a jury trial, all parties would be required to be connected during the entire time. What if one juror’s internet went down? What would the effect on the case be? What if the defense attorney cut off during his closing argument, how would that affect the jury’s opinion of the case?  
  • Access to Technology: Not everyone has equal access to the technology required to fully participate in a remote proceeding. This could put defendants at a disadvantage if they are unable to access the proper equipment. 

The Future of Remote Proceedings in Criminal Cases

While the future of the coronavirus pandemic and remote proceedings is very much up in the air, certain virtual hearings, when conducted in a way that protects a defendant’s constitutional rights, may be here to stay. With so many barriers to a fair trial, however, it is unlikely that the North Carolina criminal courts will institute virtual jury trials any time soon. 

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