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Florida Supreme Court authorizes virtual criminal jury trials

No virtual trials have been scheduled in Tampa Bay area courtrooms, officials said.
Seating for potential jurors at the start of an October murder trial in a Hillsborough County courtroom. The trial was the first in Hillsborough since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Potential jurors were socially distanced and wore protective face coverings. The Florida Supreme Court has issued guidelines to hold virtual jury trials.
Seating for potential jurors at the start of an October murder trial in a Hillsborough County courtroom. The trial was the first in Hillsborough since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Potential jurors were socially distanced and wore protective face coverings. The Florida Supreme Court has issued guidelines to hold virtual jury trials. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Feb. 24
Updated Feb. 24

The Florida Supreme Court has authorized some criminal jury trials to be conducted virtually, giving courts another option to process the increasing backlog of cases caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

To conduct a virtual jury trial, a defendant must consent to it, according to the administrative order issued Feb. 17. The judge overseeing the case will also consider the stance of prosecutors and, if applicable, victims in deciding whether to conduct the trial virtually.

No virtual criminal trials are scheduled in Tampa Bay yet, said court officials in the Hillsborough and Pinellas-Pasco judicial circuits. However, the circuit’s chief judges said they’d be open to them if the circumstances make sense.

“The court would certainly be open to it and we’ve got the technology ... to do that,” said Hillsborough Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta. “You’ve got to consider the rights of the parties, and having them all sign off and agreeing to this virtual type of trial would be an issue.”

Related: Hillsborough, Pinellas jury trials suspended as coronavirus cases rise

Like most workplaces, the courts pulled back from in-person gatherings amid the pandemic and moved many proceedings online.

But jury trials pose a unique challenge, said Pinellas Clerk of the Circuit Court Ken Burke, whose office is tasked with assembling jury pools. It would be tougher for the defendant, judge and attorneys to read jurors’ body language during a virtual trial, he noted. There are other potential technology pitfalls that come with virtual meetings.

“When a person’s civil rights are at stake, that’s concerning,” Burke said, adding that Pinellas County hasn’t had an issue getting jurors to show up in person.

Courts suspended most operations, including criminal jury trials, when the pandemic began in March. They started up again in person in the fall.

Related: Jurors return to Tampa courtrooms with masks, sanitizer, distance

Then, following a post-holiday spike in cases, both the Pinellas-Pasco and Hillsborough circuits suspended criminal jury trials in early January. Hillsborough resumed them this month. Pinellas is set to resume trials on March 1 and in Pasco on March 15.

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