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Trial by Zoom in Massachusetts Does Not Violate Confrontation Right, SJC Decides

Remote Trial did not Violate Defendant’s Constitutional Rights 

Ever since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been some discussion as to whether remote trials are in violation of a defendant’s constitutional rights. In the recently decided case of Commonwealth v. Curran, the highest court in Massachusetts decided that it does not. 

What happened in the Curran case? 

The Confrontation Clause found in the Sixth Amendment provides that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right…to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” The Confrontation Clause was intended to prevent the conviction of a defendant upon written evidence. In every criminal trial, the defendant has the right to confront his accuser. 

In Curran, the defendant had a bench trial in August of 2020. The trial was conducted partially by Zoom. All participants appeared in person except for the defendant and the Commonwealth’s first witness, the defendant’s neighbor. Both the defendant and the neighbor appeared by Zoom. 

The neighbor testified that she called the police upon observing the defendant choking and ripping out the victim’s hair. The Commonwealth’s second witness, a police officer who responded to the neighbor’s call, testified that when he arrived at the scene, he spoke with the neighbor and observed the victim who was shaking and missing patches of hair. However, the victim testified that the defendant had not assaulted her that night. 

The judge found the defendant guilty of simple assault and battery and he was sentenced to one year in prison. The defendant appealed on the confrontation issue

Under Massachusetts law, a defendant’s right to confront an adverse witness encompasses not only the right to question those witnesses but also the right to see and be seen by them face to face as they testify. The defendant claimed that his confrontation rights were violated because the video monitor denied him physical face to face confrontation of the witness 

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court was not persuaded by his argument and found that the defendant was not prejudiced. During the trial, the defendant was able to view his attorney, the judge, and witnesses as they testified on a single monitor. There were no problems with technology, and the judge periodically confirmed that the defendant could hear and see the proceedings during the trial. The Court found that the trial would have likely not been different had it been in person. 

This case settles the debate over whether a Zoom trial infringes on a defendant’s rights. Although the Court decided it is not a violation, the Court did recognize that conducting trials on Zoom can create issues not present in an in-person trial. For this reason, the Court did give recommendations to the trial courts on how to conduct a Zoom trial fairly. 

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