Travis County holds first online criminal trial Tuesday

Travis County

TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — After months of preparation, Travis County held the nation’s first binding criminal jury trial using video conference technology Tuesday.

“It was a little bit surprising when I found out that me, just little ol’ JP, would be doing the first one,” Travis County Justice of the Peace Nicholas Chu said.

The virtual trial also marked the first jury trial for the county in five months — since mid-March — before COVID-19 shuttered courtrooms.

“Before, when we were having in-person court proceedings, prior to March, we would resolve cases day-in and day-out, my docket would be busy from 9 a.m. to about 4 p.m. each day,” explained Chu. “Now, that’s slowed down significantly. Instead of having a bunch of cases on one docket now, we have to set one or two because everything has to be done through a virtual video conference.”

Tuesday’s virtual jury trial revolved around a traffic ticket, a misdemeanor case, that could have big implications for cases in Travis County and beyond. Chu said all parties involved including the attorneys, jury, witnesses and even himself operated virtually.

“This is being done through Zoom and the courts have been using Zoom since March, and so we will be familiar if somebody drops off the call or if they just stay static for a while we’ll figure out, ‘Hey, this person is probably having internet issues let’s try to see what’s going on there,’” Chu explained.

A total of seven jurors were selected; one remained on standby while six jurors heard and deliberated the case, all from the comfort of their homes.

“The main thing that I want to do is make sure that we provide a fair trial for both parties,” he said.

As far as the outcome of Tuesday’s case — the jury found the defendant guilty of speeding, but not speeding in a construction zone. The judge gave her deferred adjudication and a $50 fine, plus $107.10 in court costs.

If needed, the county would provide jurors with the technology to participate. They have iPads with internet capabilities ready to loan out. Chu said this way the jury represents all of Travis County.

“In other words, it’s not just people who have access to technology who are able to show up for this virtual jury trial — it’s normal people who are summoned for jury duty like anybody else,” he said.

Depending on how Tuesday went, this virtual trial could become the county’s technological roadmap.

“My hope is that this virtual jury trial will provide another option so we can get a chance to help with that backlog and maybe this is something we want to think about using in the future as well to help folks.”

Chu said both parties, in this case, agreed to the virtual trial. He said after the virtual trial takes place, the county will re-evaluate the proceeding and make adjustments if needed for future virtual trials.

Felony trials go digital?

Chu said he does not expect felony cases to go online, because there are some constitutional concerns. He said maybe it could be a situation where a defendant wants their case heard, but he expects that they will stick with lower-level cases for now.

Virtual trials during COVID-19

In May, a Collin County court held the first civil jury trial.

The North Texas courtroom heard an insurance case where more than two dozen potential jurors got ready for jury selection by logging into their smartphone, laptop and tablet.

There were some technical issues including connectivity and camera problems, but Collin County leaders made it work. The jurors in this case delivered a non-binding verdict.

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