Reporter Aidan McGloin alerted me last month that there were two newsworthy cases beginning trials on the same day, last Friday.
“We will have to divide and conquer,” he chatted to me, meaning I needed to cover a live trial as a reporter.
I was both excited and daunted.
I’ve never been a trial reporter, and I didn’t minor in law, as Aidan did. Many people have the impression that all journalists are reporters, but editing and reporting are vastly different skills.
I have been reading about reporting on the law, but getting ready to show up in a courtroom not knowing procedure or lingo is scary.
The documents from my case said the first trial event would be at 8:30 a.m. in Murrieta. I called the court to ask what would be happening at that event, but they could not tell me.
Thursday afternoon I drove down there and checked into a hotel, while watching the Fairview Fire evacuation-warning boundary creep to within blocks of the courthouse.
I unloaded my car under falling ash and an orange-brown sky.
At 7:30 a.m. Friday I called the court to ensure my paperwork was in order and that they were not postponing because of the fire.
All was well. The event that day was a conference with the judge and attorneys.
The courtroom assistant told me the judge had granted me access. I said, “I’ll be right there.”
“The conference is not in person,” she said.
So I sat at my hotel-room desk, ridiculously in my business clothes with the camera off, attending my first trial by Zoom. It was pouring rain outside. It’s a good thing I hadn’t gotten up and driven in from Redlands.
The conference wasn’t newsworthy as far as the trial’s coverage goes, but it was interesting. Monday morning the court assistant emailed me that the parties had settled the case.
Still, I’m glad I attended.
My biggest takeaway is that COVID-19 has changed the whole trial experience. Here are five consequences of the pandemic that stood out to me. Of course they may not be true for every judge or every superior court. In my vast experience of one day of one trial, I cannot be sure.
1. Some procedures are Zoom only
The conference I attended did not have an in-person option. When I called the day before, the court did not tell me this, and I did not know to ask.
2. Jury selection and opening statements may be off the record
Jury selection was going to be in person, but the court reporter was not going to take it all down.
The judge said if a lawyer wanted something on the record, he could say so afterward and they would enter it.
The reason was time. Even in person, in order for court reporters to hear clearly, everyone needs to speak into a microphone, and the judge said the act of passing a hand-held mic around the jury box required sanitizing it between each speaker, which lengthened the trial time unreasonably.
3. Witnesses may and should appear remotely
Having witnesses appear by Zoom makes it easier on the witnesses and reduces exposure to viruses.
The lawyers seemed wary about this one. They asked how well the jury would be able to see the witnesses.
“Very well,” the judge said. “They will be on a big screen.”
The only complication is, if a lawyer wants to hand a witness a piece of evidence to read from or identify, they have to get it to the witness in advance. “You could share your screen,” she said, “but the jury will be able to see it too.”
4. Spectators can attend all Riverside Superior trials by Zoom
All of the trials have Zoom links for online attendance, and Zoom can be used for the duration of each trial.
It’s not like the days where you could just walk into a courtroom, sit down and watch. On Zoom, someone has to admit you. The court assistant asked me who I was, and why I was attending. I had to fill out a media form, which is typically used to get permission to take photos or video. The judge had granted me permission to attend, but not to take pictures.
5. The risk of losing the jury to sickness looms
The judge said if one juror gets COVID-19, the people sitting next to him could have it the next day and they’ll fall like dominoes. Two alternates doesn’t help if a virus is spreading through all the jurors in the box.
The next time I will be more savvy. I’m looking forward to it with more excitement and less worry.
And because turnabout is fair play, I asked Aidan to edit this column.