In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Virginia courts all but shut down, hearing only emergency matters for many months. However, in recent weeks, courts have begun to re-open to address the backlog of cases that has resulted from the months-long shutdown. As courts open up, many Virginia criminal defense attorneys are concerned about the ability of a defendant to receive a fair trial given the challenges of conducting a trial during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Holding a jury trial during the pandemic gives rise to several potentially serious problems, as it is difficult to ensure that a defendant’s constitutional rights are adequately protected. The following are among the concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic presents to those facing serious criminal charges:
Right to a fair jury – Under the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, criminal defendants are guaranteed the right to a trial by a jury of their peers. Subsequent case law further requires that a jury is composed of a fair cross-section of society. Some have raised concerns that a large number of people will fear the health risks of serving on a jury during the COVID-19 pandemic. Conducting a jury without these people, many of which may be more liberal-leaning, could result in a jury with a more conservative slant, potentially depriving a defendant of their right to a fair and impartial jury.
Mask-wearing protocol – Courts must follow strict rules when it comes to how criminal defendants are treated in front of the jury. For example, absent a compelling reason, criminal defendants cannot be forced to wear handcuffs or masks during a trial for fear of what subconscious cues it may send to the jury. Similarly, a jury may have a more difficult time gauging the credibility of witnesses who wear masks as they testify.
The ability to subpoena witnesses – Just as the prosecution has the ability to subpoena witnesses to help present its case, so too does the defense. However, in reality, it can be challenging getting witnesses to come to court. This is especially the case during the COVID-19 pandemic, when potential witnesses may not feel comfortable putting their own health at risk.
While conducting a jury trial during the pandemic has its problems, so too does keeping defendants in custody indefinitely. To be sure, the state criminal justice system is going to need to come up with some solutions before defense attorneys and their clients feel comfortable taking a case to trial during the pandemic.
Are You Awaiting Trial for a Virginia Crime?
If you have recently been arrested and are awaiting trial for a serious crime, contact the dedicated criminal defense attorneys at Robinson Law, PLLC. Our dedicated team of attorneys handles all types of serious crimes, including Virginia drunk driving offenses, gun crimes, drug charges, and more. We work diligently to get our clients out of custody, so we can take out time in developing a rock-solid defense to the charges they are facing. To learn more, and to schedule a free consultation with an attorney today, call (703) 844-3746 today.