McKinney Judge Joins New World of Zoom Jury Trials

A municipal judge in McKinney says jury trials via Zoom are helping clear a backlog of cases built up during the pandemic

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Another limitation of the pandemic is the pause it placed on jury trials.

Most courts are prohibited from holding trials in-person. So, like everyone else, judges are turning to technology to get the job done.

Instead of the courtroom, these days jurors report from their living rooms as more courts embrace justice via Zoom.

“This is actually a pretty cool thing being able to do jury trials online. This is not something that's happening too frequently,” Judge Claire Petty said at the start of a virtual jury trial on Tuesday. It was her second ever.

Petty is a municipal judge in the City of McKinney.

She's held hearings via Zoom throughout the pandemic. But last week, she presided over the state's first virtual jury trial for a municipal court, a process that was months in the making.

“We started practicing weekly and we would use court staff, other employees from other departments, relatives as mock jurors,” Petty said.

In her virtual courtroom, jury selection looks more like the beginning of a Brady Bunch episode.

In her second jury trial Tuesday, a truck driver was charged with impeding traffic along U.S. 75 in McKinney.

Evidence was presented and a witness testified much like a traditional trial, except all of it was streamed live on YouTube.

Petty said she has a backlog of about 20 cases awaiting a jury trial. While the new approach is helping, she said virtual juries could pose real problems.

“Will we have a fair cross-section of the community to be represented in the jury pool? Do they all have access to the technology to allow us that fair cross-section?” she asked.

Petty also said attorneys may find it more difficult to read the faces and body language of potential jurors on Zoom.

Tuesday’s trial began with 20 potential jurors.

The jury of six, which is all municipal courts require, deliberated in a virtual breakout room then returned a verdict: Guilty with a fine of $150.

After two trials, she said the system is working.

"It was a lot of preparation but now that we’re here, I feel really good that we were able to get this done and that we are going to able to work through some of these cases that have been pending," she said.

Pre-trial hearings are held in advance, and if a defendant objects to having a virtual trial, they can request to have it held in-person when they resume in February, at the earliest.

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