Miami-Dade Court Holds State's First Virtual Jury Trial Amid Pandemic

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"It was my roof," Yusem Corchero told the Miami-Dade Court on Tuesday.  

Her testimony was part of the wheels of justice turning in a new way, as history was being made.

The Miami-Dade courts launched the state's first virtual jury trial, showing what could be the norm during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Corchero was speaking through her mask when she testified in court, Tuesday. The dispute stemmed over damage to her home during hurricane Irma.

On the other side of the courtroom, and behind some plexiglass, the attorneys, jury, and Judge Beatrice Butchko.  

The trial is part of a pilot program where the Florida Supreme Court wants to see how handling trials remotely will work, and if it meets the required legal standards for due process.  

Miami-Dade Chief Judge Bertila Soto said, "We are trying everything possible to make sure people have access to the courts."

Administrative Judge Jennifer Bailey said, "That’s the challenge. To balance on one hand the constitutional right to trial by jury - to have your problems resolved by the court. And, we need to keep everybody safe especially during the course of recent weeks when the cases in Miami are surging.”

Both judges say COVID-19 has put the courts on the cutting edge, with thousands of hearings held over Zoom and people using smart phones to track their cases.  

Tuesday's experiment was with the jurors. The jury selection for this trial was done over Zoom.

Judge Bailey was impressed. With all that is currently happening with the rise in new COVID cases, potential jurors still came forward in big numbers. They started out with 600 potential jurors.

“It was great to see the members of our community recognize that courts and jury trials are essential services and who are willing to say look if you are taking the proper precautions, I’ll come down,” Bailey said.

Bailey says that some research shows using the technology available online and with apps creates a massive increase in the public participating in court proceedings.

"In some jurisdictions, we don’t have the data here yet, but the difference in participation has gone from 90 (percent) no shows to 80 percent participation—a swing of 170 percent. We’re hoping to get the same kind of numbers here."

In the future, the judges say when it comes to things like taking care of a parking ticket, even when COVID-19 passes, they don’t think you’ll have to come in to the courthouse.

The trial over the damage Hurricane Irma caused continues tomorrow.

This fall, the Florida Supreme Court will take a look at how doing jury trials this way is working. The court has to give the green light for it to become standard procedure.

“It’s a great day for the justice system - a great day for the community. We need to go forward. People have a right to have access to courts and we are trying to make that happen,” Judge Soto said.

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