Texas court holds jury trial in traffic crime case over Zoom

Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic in what Texas court officials said is a national first — a virtual jury trial in a criminal case gathered on a video conference call Tuesday.

A virtual jury trial in a Texas criminal case gathered on a video conference call Tuesday in what officials said was a national first thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.

“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 pandemic. It was greeted by lawyers and legal experts as a low-risk step forward, but one that could imperil defendants’ rights.

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In this screen grab from video provided by the Travis County Commissioners Court, Judge Nicholas Chu, top left, confers with defense attorneys Carl Guthrie, top center, and Kannon Moore, top right, and prosecutors Jaime Flores, bottom left, and Afton Washbourne, bottom right, during a Texas jury trial being conducted over Zoom on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020, in Austin. The 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 and comes as the latest experiment in how to resume jury proceedings in a criminal justice system that's been crippled by the coronavirus pandemic.

In this screen grab from video provided by the Travis County Commissioners Court, Judge Nicholas Chu, top left, confers with defense attorneys Carl Guthrie, top center, and Kannon Moore, top right, and prosecutors Jaime Flores, bottom left, and Afton Washbourne, bottom right, during a Texas jury trial being conducted over Zoom on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020, in Austin. The 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 and comes as the latest experiment in how to resume jury proceedings in a criminal justice system that's been crippled by the coronavirus pandemic. (Travis County Commissioners Court via AP)

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.

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 said Tuesday’s case was picked as the first criminal jury trial to be held virtually in the U.S. because both sides agreed and it was “ready to go.”

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 return a guilty verdict. Kornblau was given a deferred adjudication, and ordered to pay a $50 fine and court costs.

In this screen grab from video provided by the Travis County Commissioners Court, Judge Nicholas Chu confers with defense attorneys and prosecutors during a Texas jury trial being conducted over Zoom on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020, in Austin. The 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 and comes as the latest experiment in how to resume jury proceedings in a criminal justice system that's been crippled by the coronavirus pandemic.

In this screen grab from video provided by the Travis County Commissioners Court, Judge Nicholas Chu confers with defense attorneys and prosecutors during a Texas jury trial being conducted over Zoom on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020, in Austin. The 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 and comes as the latest experiment in how to resume jury proceedings in a criminal justice system that's been crippled by the coronavirus pandemic. (Travis County Commissioners Court via AP)

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

Legal experts say the pandemic requires courts to strike a tricky balance; they must advance cases to give people speedy trials and prevent an overwhelming backlog while preserving defendants’ rights.

Whether trial by Zoom can achieve this equilibrium is unclear.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.