Does a trial by Zoom violate a Defendant's rights? The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to Decide.

A Criminal defendant in this country has a right to trial in front of a jury of their peers or one in front of a Judge. 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 inception of COVID-19 pandemic, and day to day life is just starting to get back to a "new normal" while the judicial system also tries to adjust. 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 because the case was scheduled for a bench trial. A bench trial is a trial in front of a judge, rather than a jury. During the trial, 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 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 consult 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 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 over a computer screen is not the same as in-person confrontation. 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. 

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 they were in two 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 that judges will be required to advise a criminal defendant on the potential rights they are surrendering by having a trial remotely.