First jury selection via Zoom conducted in Texas

A Texas court summoned about 30 Dallas-region residents to their webcams Monday for a jury selection, the first such virtual procedure as the US hunkers down during the coronavirus pandemic.

Since the start of the health crisis, US courts have switched to conducting hearings via video or audio conference, but trials requiring juries had been postponed.

In Collin County, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) northeast of Dallas, judge Emily Miskel had a month to prepare for the hearing — which she believes is a first at the national level — and make the virtual trial “as close as possible to the in-person trial.”

“Normally, we would call a panel of, like, 45 people, and they would all sit in the courtroom,” she said. Instead, she created two virtual conference rooms on videoconference service Zoom and live-streamed the jury selection — one of the first steps in the trial process — on her YouTube channel.

Despite a few technical glitches, Miskel felt the process went well. “The few things that went wrong, they were normal things that also go wrong at the real courthouse,” she told AFP.

During the selection process, both Miskel and her colleague Keith Dean wore their traditional black judges’ robes. Dean told the potential jurists to “see this as jury duty.”

“You’re not at home on jury duty, you’re at jury duty. It just happens to be at home,” he said.

The trial, which was over insurance litigation, was close to mediation and had little at stake, making it the perfect test case for future virtual jury trials.

The jury’s verdict in this case was non-binding and, once rendered, both parties could settle out of court.

“Even if we were to start having proceedings in the courtroom today, everyone would be masked, and it would be hard to hear it and understand and judge credibility” of the testimony and evidence, Miskel said, though she noted her frustration with internet access inequality.

The court is working to set up cubicles equipped with tablets for people who are unable to call in virtually from home. Agence France-Presse

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