For all of human history, the legal system has relied on in-person proceedings to conduct the bulk of its business. Court buildings are the epicenter of those proceedings – their stately appearance a visual reminder of the solemnity and gravity of what takes place within. Jury trials, especially, required physical presence. Jurors needed to look witnesses in the eyes. Attorneys needed to read body language. And judges needed to oversee it all – literally and figuratively.
Now, all of that has changed. COVID-19 has made virtual trials a necessity. It’s been an interesting social and legal experiment, with surprising results.
The historic verdict
One headline-grabbing result was the recent $411 million jury verdict in a Florida personal injury trial. The case involved a motorcyclist who was paralyzed in a 45-car pileup. The culprit was a speeding truck. The accident victim, an Army veteran, will never fully recover from the extensive physical injuries. His medical bills alone totaled nearly $750,000.
Attorney Ben Crump – a nationally known civil rights lawyer who also represents the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Jacob Blake – conducted the trial entirely by videoconferencing. It’s a remarkable feat. Crump and his co-counsel, Robert Cox, faced no easy task. Given the complexity of the accident, the case undoubtedly involved a mountain on evidence from both sides. Attempting to explain those complexities via videoconferencing adds another layer of difficulty.
What’s more, achieving an emotional connection with a jury of 12 strangers requires enormous skill and experience. It’s a formidable challenge even in a courtroom, when all that stands between the jury and attorneys is a waist-high wood panel. Connecting with a jury through a screen is even more of a hurdle.
Long-term trial by Zoom?
As something of a test case for virtual trials, the verdict smashes all expectations. It also raises questions about the future of “trial by Zoom.” Is there a long-term role for videoconferencing in the legal system? Are digital court proceedings here to stay?
Only time will tell.