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Concerns over virtual jury selection suspend criminal trial

October 1, 2020 GMT

HACKENSACK, N.J. (AP) — One of the first two jury trials in New Jersey since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has been suspended over concerns about the virtual jury selection plan the state put in place over the summer.

The trial in Bergen County was to begin this week, but defense lawyers argued that the jury selection process implemented by the state unfairly excludes minority and older jurors. On Wednesday, an appeals court suspended the trial, and is expected to hear arguments this month.

In-person jury trials were suspended for six months in New Jersey, one of the states hardest hit by the pandemic. As part of a plan to resume jury trials on a limited basis — and reduce a backlog of thousands of cases that had piled up — the state Supreme Court released a plan in August that provided for jury selection to be conducted mostly online, with some individual questioning of jurors done in person.

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The Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey criticized the plan at the time, saying a lack of access to technology would unconstitutionally exclude minority, poor and elderly jurors.

In the Bergen County case, involving a Filipino defendant, the jury was predominantly white, said Matthew Adams, the association’s vice president.

“There is simply no excuse to relax the constitutional protections that ensure the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial before a jury of one’s peers, even a once in a lifetime public health crisis,” Adams said Thursday in an email. “The hybrid jury selection model employed in this case without adequate input from the defense bar placed expediency over constitutional rights.”

A spokeswoman for the state judiciary declined to comment on the suspension of the trial Thursday. The other trial, in Atlantic County, was proceeding. Another trial was tentatively scheduled for Cumberland County next week.

In addition to virtual jury selection, other measures required by the state include spacing apart jurors in courtrooms and seating spectators in separate rooms for remote viewing.