The COVID-19 pandemic curbed live court proceedings and created serious concerns about defendants’ rights, the Stanford Criminal Justice Center reported.
The center analyzed the quality and adherence of virtual or remote criminal court proceedings in its report, Virtual Justice?
Live-streamed video and teleconferencing replaced many in-person activities.
“The pandemic hit so suddenly and there was no time for our criminal legal system to examine best practices and study the effects of moving to virtual court before its implementation,” SCJC Executive Director Debbie Mukamal told Stanford Law School News and Media.
“But over the past year, this project has sought to learn from some of those swept up in this impromptu experiment,” the Aug. 5, 2021 story reported.
The study showed that many aspects of virtual court proceedings hindered criminal defendants from accessing legal services, and thereby diminished the overall quality of justice received.
Mukamal also said she believes the Virtual Justice? analysis can help inform America’s criminal legal system on how to best utilize virtual technology in the post-COVID future.
Stanford law school students put the report together as part of their course of study entitled, “COVID-19 and the effect of video technology on indigent defense services.”
Stanford Law Professor Robert Weisberg said he believes virtual technology weakened attorney-client communication. Defense attorneys agreed the shift to virtual proceedings damaged lines of communications with their clients.
Video and Zoom monitoring intruded on the sense of confidentiality normally associated with attorney-client conversations. Building relationships and the virtual dynamics of sharing discovery also proved troublesome.
“Being able to discuss what is happening in real time with your client while a proceeding is taking place is central to the role of a criminal defense attorney,” said Weinberg. “Doing court by Zoom undermines this function.”
Defense attorneys and judges believe that the lack of access to virtual technology inevitably hampers incarcerated persons. Virtual platforms do not contain the physical cues and emotional impact of a live trial.
The use of virtual technology, or “trial by screen,” can impact the defendant severely. Collateral damage — such as harsher sentences, lack of empathy and a lower trust in the legal system — was the main concern expressed by those interviewed in the study.
Constitutional ramifications, such as the right to confront a witness (the confrontation clause), were also at issue.
“Criminal defense lawyers have worked heroically during the pandemic to ensure that our clients are treated fairly and humanely in the criminal legal system,” said Martin Antonio Sabelli, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “That is why their input was fundamental to this report.”