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Law & Order

St. Louis County Court Hits Pandemic Milestone With First Virtual Criminal Trial

A Dec. 18, 2020 photo shows a conference room with a TV screen and computer that prosecutors use to conduct virtual court hearings.
St. Louis County Prosecutors' Office
The St. Louis County prosecutor's office used federal coronavirus relief funds to purchase cameras, computers and televisions to virtual trials from an office conference room.

Two defendants in St. Louis County last week became the first people in the 21st Circuit to participate in a criminal trial using video conferencing.

The Missouri Supreme Court issued an order in July encouraging the use of technology to keep dockets moving during the coronavirus pandemic. While St. Louis County judges have used tools like WebEx and Zoom for civil trials and criminal matters such as status conferences or motion hearings, it took until now for defendants to agree to a video trial in front of a judge, rather than an in-person one before a jury.

“Most of the clients whose cases were delayed due to COVID are charged with very serious felonies,” said Stephen Reynolds, the former top public defender in St. Louis County. “And those clients and their attorneys have made the decision that a jury trial’s in their best interest.”

Clients who were charged with lower-level offenses and released before trial, he added, might not want to risk going to jail or prison during a pandemic.

The public defender’s office is representing the defendant in the first trial, who is charged with misdemeanor sexual misconduct for allegedly exposing himself to a woman doing yard work. The judge has not yet reached a verdict in that case, which was heard Dec. 15.

A second defendant, represented by private counsel, pleaded guilty to felony statutory rape and resisting arrest charges Dec. 18, just before his trial was to begin. He will be sentenced in February.

Earlier this month, prosecutors used a virtual hearing to secure a 10-year sentence in a drunken driving case in which an elderly woman was killed.

“As the victim’s family was testifying, and recalling particular times and events with the victim, we were showing a slideshow of pictures of particular memories and events,” said St. Louis County Assistant Prosecutor Jason Denney, who helped handle the hearing. “So to facilitate that through Zoom took some practice. We did that in the weeks ahead of time to get it all right.”

Although the coronavirus pandemic is far from over, neither Denney nor Reynolds expect contested cases via Zoom to become the norm.

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