In the blink of an eye, thousands of jury trials nationwide were suspended due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Criminal suspects were left languishing, awaiting their respective fates. Scrambling for options, videoconferencing, and other remote options strived to keep the wheels of justice moving, if not very slow.
With the backlog becoming practically unmanageable, various steps are being taken to return juries to courtrooms without spreading a highly contagious virus. While the selection of jurists can be completed remotely, at some point, they have to be together physically and not digitally.
Protections may have a price
Many jurisdictions have moved to convention centers, schools, and other, much larger structures, to ensure social distancing for everyone involved in a trial. Others are using plexiglass that surrounds witness stands and jury boxes. Clear barriers can also separate lawyers and defendants with only a small opening to pass notes.
Yet, even with all these modifications to ensure safety, the current courtroom conditions could adversely affect the future of criminal defendants. Seemingly lost in this continually shifting shuffle is the impact on their constitutional rights.
Jury members should be wholly invested in a trial, not distracted by health concerns. Those who are more at risk may want to hurry deliberations along so they can return to the safety of their homes. Mask mandates are forcing witnesses to testify while shielding half their faces, presenting challenges for the most seasoned criminal defense lawyer skilled in interpreting facial expressions.
Prosecutors insist on keeping the court system moving along, claiming that there are no perfect situations in the balance between health concerns and constitutional rights. Conversely, defendants and their legal counsel will likely challenge the restrictions and the impact it has on the outcome of a case.
Whether the current changes are temporary or a step towards a “new normal,” those accused of a crime are entitled to the presumption of innocence without any modifications or restrictions.