Does a Zoom Trial Violate A Defendant’s Rights? The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to Decide.
Criminal defendants in this country have a right to trial in front of a jury of their peers. Additionally, the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article Twelve of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights guarantees a defendant’s right to confront a witness at trial.
However, it has been nearly two years since the COVID-19 pandemic, and life is just now beginning to return to normal. COVID has thrown a wrench in nearly every facet of life, including criminal trials. The case of Commonwealth v. Curran will decide whether Zoom proceedings interfere with a defendant’s rights.
What happened in Curran?
On August 24, 2020, Curran was on Zoom, while his attorney was in the Fitchburg District Court, to have a bench trial. During the course of the trial, the Curran was at the Worcester County House of Correction. The Court conducted a colloquy with the defendant regarding only the waiver of his constitutional right to be tried by a jury. Witnesses testified over Zoom and alleged that Curran choked and ripped the hair out of a female victim whom he lived with. Curran was convicted of one count of assault and battery and sentenced to a year in jail.
Curran argues that the current colloquy given for a jury trial waiver is inadequate as a matter of law. He asserts that it fails to fully apprise the criminal defendant of the rights he is giving up by being tried remotely. These rights include the right to be present during a trial, the right to a public trial, the right to confront and cross-examine the witness, and the right to effective assistance of counsel, which should afford the defendant the opportunity to discuss with his lawyer during trial. Curran alleges that he was deprived of all of these rights in his case due to the virtual nature of the case, and the trial judge never made an inquiry in that regard. A colloquy is conducted by the court to determine that a defendant’s waiver of rights is both known and voluntary. However, due to the unprecedented nature of the pandemic, the judge did not properly conduct a colloquy with Curran, and as a result, Curran argues that he was waiving basic rights and privileges that come with an in-person trial.
Additionally, the Sixth Amendment’s “Confrontation Clause” gives a criminal defendant the right to confront their witness during a criminal trial, with limited exceptions. It is easy to see that confrontation through a computer screen is not the same as in-person confrontation, and the two are not connotationally equivalent. In Curran’s case, the trial judge did not make any inquiry as to the defendant’s rights to be physically present and to confront his witnesses in person, Further, Curran asserts that the Zoom trial violated his right to be present at all critical stages of the trial.
Finally, Curran argues that he was denied his right to effective assistance of counsel. Curran and his attorney could not confer during the trial because there were in different locations. Curran could not participate in his own trial and instead could only observe virtually. He could not discuss the trial with his attorney or decide whether to testify.
Curran hopes that in the future, judges are required to advise a criminal defendant on the potential rights they are surrendering by having a trial remotely.
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