Zoom Jury Trials — “It’s Good Enough” Lowers the Standard in Our Courtrooms

May 19, 2020

By Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal

www.rosenthalwadas.com

(972) 369-0577

Collin County is kicking around the idea of jury trials via Zoom or some other similar platform.  They just tried a virtual jury trial – sort of.  It was a “summary jury trial” which is a practice run typically for wealthier litigants.  The fake jury comes back and tells the parties what they think the outcome should be — and the parties then consider settling.

***What did you say?  Sorry.  Go ahead.***

And not to pick on Zoom.  There are other similar platforms too, but I’ll just collectively refer to them here as Zoom.  Sorry.

Judges organizing and developing the idea get A’s for ingenuity, effort, and passion for their jobs.

But it’s still a terrible idea.  Remember, a jury trial is often the most important day in one or more person’s entire life.  Here are some of the biggest reasons I can think of:

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  1.  Over Simplification of Human Communication

Human communication is complex, intricate and amazingly subtle.

I’ve interviewed thousands of potential jurors  — and I have cross examined hundreds of witnesses.  Many, many jurors cannot give my client a fair trial but would still swear they could.  Many, many witnesses want to make sure I lose and evade questions until they are pinned into answering.  A critical part of my job in the courtroom is to hone in on the most minor of cues from a juror or witness.   An eye dart.  A smirk.  Posture.  Hand position.  Voice tone or inflection… and on and on an on.

***Sorry.  Lost you for a second.***

Zoom and other similar platforms are — at least for now — tone deaf.  These subtleties are either flattened, lost, or are drowned out in 20-people being crammed onto an 18-inch monitor.

And there is something to be said about accountability of the jurors too.  Jurors deliberate knowing they will have to go back into the courtroom and look me, my client, the prosecutor and in many cases a victim in the eye.  Jurors who share less of an emotional stake in the outcome will give the parties less of their focus and attention.

2.  Too Much is At Stake

For criminal defendants decades may hang in the balance not to mention the tidal wave which hits their families and loved ones which can be practical, financial and certainly emotional.  For victims it is their opportunity to be heard and have the jury see how real and fresh their pain truly is.

Zoom is probably fine for quick interactions and brief hearings.  It’s a great tool to visit with clients both incarcerated and free on bond.  It’s probably fine for motions practice with a Judge, lawyers, and possibly other witnesses during routine hearings too.

But any one of us would feel cheated and angry if we or our loved ones were sitting in jail after a trial where we couldn’t even see the jurors or our accusers in person.  Any victim whose defendant is acquitted will feel the same way too.

***Wait, who is talking?  Sorry!***

This is a jury trial — not a teamwork meeting or happy hour.  Can you imagine deciding something as critical and complex as a sexual assault shaping the lives of countless people without some sort of personal interaction?

3.  If Anyone Cares — It Violates a Bunch of Rights

This is a blog — not an amicus brief or a law review article.  So I apologize if I keep this quick and direct.

***Look at that guy’s cat!  He will knock down that picture on the wall***

Let’s start with the right to confront witnesses under the Sixth Amendment.  Then we’ll go to Due Process under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment.  Then let’s talk about the umpteen-million opinions you’ll see about the jurors ability to judge witnesses based on x, y, and z.  Or maybe we just throw those all out because we need to get our docket moving?!?

Make no mistake — Judges are asking the specific question, “Can I get away with this without getting reversed?”  My message to them — be my guest but don’t complain about trying the case when it comes back on appeal.

Bottom Line

Is Zoom “good enough?”  Perhaps in some ways and for some things.  People can talk, listen and see videos and exhibits.  But until the platform is as good as the Jedi Counsel meeting where Yoda can sit in his chair remotely from Kashyyyk and interact – it won’t be the same.

*Jeremy Rosenthal is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and is designated as a Super Lawyer by Thomson Reuters.

 

 

 

 

 


What is Heasay?

December 21, 2012

By Collin County Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal

www.rosenthalwadas.com

(972) 369-0577

This might be the first time I’ve blogged about a specific rule of evidence, but it’s a fun topic for me and I get asked about it quite a lot by clients so let’s talk about hearsay!

Hearsay is inadmissible in court and is defined by the Texas Rule of Evidence 801(d) as, “A statement, other than one made by the declarant while testifying at the trial or hearing, offered in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted.”  Hearsay is rooted in the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which allows an accused the right of cross-examination of witnesses against them.

Not very clear?  No worries.  They only devote 3 weeks to the topic in law school trying to get you to understand that one sentence.  I’ll keep it simple though hearsay and it’s effects on admissibility are extraordinarily complex and often turn on multiple interdependent factors.

In it’s plainest terms — anytime a witness is on the witness stand and quotes someone (or something) else it’s probably going to be hearsay.  We consider it unfair because it’s impossible to discredit information sources which aren’t even in the courtroom.

Here’s an example:  

Police officer #1 is on the stand and says, “Defendant’s kind-elderly neighbor told me Defendant was the drunkest she ever saw any person in her life that night.

This is textbook hearsay and here’s what makes this statement extraordinarily unfair to the accused on trial — it’s impossible to cross examine the elderly-neighbor about the statement in front of a judge or jury.  Here’s how that cross examination would go:

Q:  Officer, Do you know if elderly-neighbor might have mistaken Defendant for Defendant’s brother or Defendant’s roomate?

A:  I don’t know.  She told me it was the Defendant.

Q:  Do you know if elderly-neighbor has good vision?

A:  I don’t know.

Q:  Do you know if elderly-neighbor has a history of accusing Defendant of things he didn’t do?

A:  I don’t know.

Q:  Do you know if elderly-neighbor was on medication herself that night which could impair her ability to see things far away?

A:  I don’t know.

See how unfair this is?  Cross examining the officer is like trying to get answers out of sheet-rock.  We don’t know (1) if the officer has embellished the statement from the elderly-neighbor; and (2) we’re entitled to have the jury judge the elderly-neighbor in person while she’s questioned under oath.  The jury can judge her mannerisms, her hesitation in answering questions, and simply her plain answers the officer can’t provide.  It’s the cornerstone of a fair trial.

Here’s a bit more complicated example:

Police officer is on the witness stand and says, “I didn’t see Defendant actually commit the crime, but he did look down when he denied it to me.  I’m very familiar through my training and experience with the study from Nevada which says people who look down when they deny things are always guilty.

Here the officer is quoting a book or study and not an actual person.  Under the hearsay definition of “statement,” it makes no difference.  It would still be impossible for the defendant to show the jury the “Nevada” study (which doesn’t exist — as far as I know anyway) is nonsense.

Q:  Who wrote the “Nevada” study?

A:  I forgot.  But I know they’re really good and we use it in our academy.  I just know the guys who did the study were right.

Q:  How was the study done?

A:  I don’t remember.

Q:  Hasn’t the study been discredited by virtually every expert in the field?

A:  I don’t know.

Q:  Didn’t your own academy quit using it 10 years ago?

A:  I don’t know.  I just know the “Nevada” study says your client is guilty.

See — we have the same problem as the first example.  A study like this would have to be accepted as authoritative by an expert in the field and then could be relayed to the jury.  Another difference is the Defense would be allowed to discredit the study by showing other inconsistent language from the same study.

Not All Quotes of Outside Sources are Hearsay

To be hearsay, the quote must try to prove “the truth of the matter asserted.”  This is where hearsay discussions get really confusing and complicated.  Normally if hearsay tends to cast the accused in a negative light (the main goal of the vast majority of criminal prosecutions), there’s a good chance it is being used for “the truth of the matter asserted.”

Admissions are Not Hearsay

One key exception to the hearsay rule are known as “admissions by a party opponent.”  This is to say anything a criminal defendant tells someone is admissible in court (absent Miranda violations).  Also any party in a civil lawsuit can be directly quoted as well.

Hearsay Exceptions

Texas Rule of Evidence 803 lists 24 exceptions to the Hearsay rule.  This means even though something might be hearsay — it is still admissible because of it’s inherent trustworthiness.  Examples could be vital statistic records, statements made under high duress, or records kept in the normal course of business.

Common Uses/ Abuses of the Hearsay Rule

Hearsay is a really hot topic in family assault cases as well as child abuse cases.

In family assault cases, it’s very common where the alleged victim spouse does not wish to testify in court.  In these instances it was common for prosecutors to try and prove their case through police who arrived on the scene and took statements from the accuser.  The policy would try to use the “excited utterance” exception for the policy to essentially testify on behalf of the victim.  The U.S. Supreme Court largely put an end to this practice in 2004 in Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004) because the Court concluded this practice (in many instances) violated the Sixth Amendment right to confront accusers.

In child abuse cases prosecutors and law enforcement’s main goal at trial is to corroborate a child victim’s outcry of sexual or physical abuse.  It’s common for prosecutors to call persons who the child may have told about the abuse in an attempt to repeat the story and infer the story must be true due to how the child made the outcry.

Texas does have an outcry rule which allows at least one adult originally told the allegations by the child to repeat what would otherwise be hearsay.  It has been a re-occuring struggle for the defense in these cases, however, to prevent the host of trained child advocates whose main function is therapy and treatment of the abuse — from coming and testifying in a very honed and polished manner against the accused though they are often the 3rd, 4th, or 5th person told about the abuse from the child.

*Jeremy Rosenthal is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and licensed by the Supreme Court of Texas. Nothing in this article is intended to be legal advice.  For legal advice about any situation you should consult an attorney directly.  Communications sent through this forum are not confidential nor subject to the attorney/ client privilege.


Does The Alleged Victim in an Assault Case Need a Lawyer Too?

November 16, 2010

By Dallas and Collin County Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal

(972) 562-7549

www.thecollincountylawyer.com

I get asked this question from time to time, so today I’ll try and answer it.

The short answer is maybe.  In virtually any assault case, the main evidence comes from the alleged victim who almost always gives a statement to police either at the scene of the arrest or at the police station.

Alleged victims are often later asked to give statement in subsequent proceedings whether it is in trial, statements to a prosecuting attorney, or by signing affidavits of non-prosecution requesting that charges be dropped.  Statements which are inconsistent with the original statement given to police can give rise to criminal liability to the victim.

Texas Penal Code 37.08 covers false reports to police officers and states in relevant part, “A person commits an offense if, with intent to deceive, he knowingly makes a false statement that is material to a criminal investigation and makes the statement to… (1)  a peace officer conducting the investigation; or (2)  any employee of a law enforcement agency that is authorized by the agency to conduct the investigation and that the actor knows is conducting the investigation.”

In a nutshell, it is possible that where an alleged victim makes a statement to law enforcement down the road in a case which reveals that they weren’t being truthful at any point of the case when dealing with police or with prosecutors… then the alleged victim themselves can have criminal exposure.

False reports to police officers are class b misdemeanors and carry a punishment of up to 180 days jail and a $2,000 fine.

Also, the attorney representing the accused in an assault cannot also give legal advice to the alleged victim.  This is because there is a very clear conflict of interest for the attorney who represents the accused’s best interests — and has no ethical or legal obligation to protect the alleged victims interests as well.

If you’re the alleged victim in an assault case or domestic violence case in Texas, you may want to seek legal counsel if you have any questions about your rights and representation if so needed.

*Jeremy Rosenthal is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and licensed by the Supreme Court of Texas. Nothing in this article is intended to be legal advice.  For specific legal advice about any particular case or situation you should directly consult an attorney.


Can the Victim Drop Assault Charges?

September 14, 2010

By Dallas and Collin County Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal

(972) 562-7549

www.thecollincountylawyer.com

In a criminal case in Texas — not directly.  In a civil case — yes.

Assault charges can be brought two different ways in Texas — in a criminal court or (far less commonly) in a civil lawsuit.  A civil lawsuit can be brought by the alleged victim to recover money while a criminal charge is brought by the State seeking a criminal conviction on the accused’s record.  Civil cases can always be dropped by the person bringing the suit.

In a criminal action, the parties are the State of Texas and the accused.  The victim is not directly a party to the action and is really more accurately characterized as a witness.  An alleged victim can request that charges be dropped, but the prosecuting attorney does not have to honor that request.

Many prosecutors will ask an alleged victim for what is known as an “affidavit of non-prosecution” or an ANP for short if they don’t want to prosecute.  An ANP is a statement under oath which details the reasons for their not wanting to prosecute.

An alleged victim has potential legal exposure for making a false police report in the event they admit statements on their ANP that are inconsistent with what they originally told police.  For this reason, an alleged victim should seek counsel as well prior to doing an affidavit of non-prosecution (not the same lawyer defending the assault case — that would be a conflict of interest for the lawyer).

The Bottom Line

Assault cases — especially ones involving alleged family violence or spousal abuse — aren’t necessarily dismissed in Texas courts merely because the victim wants the case to be dismissed.  The matters are complicated and the alleged victim should seek a lawyer in addition to the accused having a lawyer where the alleged victim is seeking to ask for charges to be dropped.

*Jeremy Rosenthal is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and licensed by the Supreme Court of Texas. Nothing in this article is intended to be legal advice.  For specific legal advice about any specific situation, you should consult an attorney directly.


Self Defense in Family Assault Cases

May 27, 2010

By Collin County Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal

www.rosenthalwadas.com

(972) 369-0577

Self defense is a common affirmative defense in family violence/ domestic assault cases.

The defense is governed by Texas Penal Code Section 9.31.  That provision says (in relevant part), “a person is justified in using force against another when and to the degree the actor reasonably believes the force is immediately necessary to protect the actor against the other’s use or attempted use of unlawful force.”

Self defense is an affirmative defense which means it needs to be raised by the accused (and not merely dis-proven by the prosecution as part of their case-in-chief).

Once the defense is properly raised in trial by the defendant, then the judge can instruct the jury that unless the prosecution dis-proves defendant’s self-defense theory beyond all reasonable doubt — the defendant is entitled to acquittal.

Self defense is raised in many assault cases involving family members — usually spouses.  The law makes no distinction as between male and female and either party may be entitled to rely on the self-defense defense depending on the facts.

Though case law isn’t 100% — most criminal defendants take the witness stand and admit to the underlying assault in order to rely on the self-defense statute.  Courts generally feel it is inconsistent for an accused to claim (1) it never happened; and (2) if it did happen — It was self defense.

*Jeremy Rosenthal is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and licensed by the Supreme Court of Texas. Nothing in this article is intended to be legal advice.  For specific legal advice, you should consult an attorney directly.