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Alaska News

State will convene grand juries by Zoom in test project for rural Alaska

Alaska Supreme Court on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016. (Bill Roth / Alaska Dispatch News)

In August, prospective jurors in Western Alaska will start receiving questionnaires about their internet access and comfort with computers. Answering correctly could make them Alaska’s first internet jurors.

Courts in rural Western Alaska will soon begin a test project allowing grand jury proceedings by teleconference. Jurors comfortable with computers and with appropriate internet connections will be allowed to complete their jury service from home.

The system will not be used for trials, and jurors will still be allowed in the courthouse.

Along with an order mandating masks in courthouses, it’s part of the court system’s response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“In some ways, it’s ‘Star Trek.’ In another way, it’s everyday,” said Judge Paul Roetman, who presides over the court system’s Second Judicial District.

That district includes the North Slope, Kotzebue, the Seward Peninsula (including Nome) and the Norton Sound coast as far south as Saint Michael and Stebbins.

The area’s sprawling geography means Roetman’s courts have used teleconferencing for years to bail hearings and similar proceedings.

“Troopers had been transporting people several times a week,” he said, and the costs added up.

“We’re kind of used to looking to technology to helping us do what we do,” he said.

Under the test program, jurors called to serve on a grand jury will get a questionnaire checking their technical saavy and their ability to participate remotely. Those who can’t or prefer not to will be called in physically. Those who can participate online will be asked to connect via Zoom from a quiet room where no one else is around. Prosecutors will be able to call witnesses and show exhibits to the jurors, and when it’s time for deliberations, the Zoom call will be handed over to the jury foreperson, who will be in the courthouse on a court-issued laptop.

With courthouses too small to accommodate social distancing in person, Roetman said it’s a way to accommodate as many people as possible.

John Earthman is the district attorney in Nome and said he believes the proposal is a good idea.

“They’re certainly trying to make the best of a bad situation,” he said of the courts amid coronavirus.

“It’s virtually certain that there’s going to be technical issues that are going to have to be worked out. Just the bandwidth — how the Internet works up here,” he said.

Roetman didn’t disagree, and neither did Brodie Kimmel, the court administrator. Both said they intend a slow rollout and have been holding mock jury sessions to test the new procedures they’re crafting.

Other states, including Arizona and New Jersey, have begun similar test programs, and Alaska is borrowing from that prior experience. Roetman said he expects the test project to run for three months or so before re-evaluating things.

Ben Muse, who supervises the region for the state Public Defender Agency, said his office has some concerns with the proposal.

“We’re altering the grand jury process in a pretty significant way, I think, in moving to videoconference,” he said.

Among his concerns is the issue of equity.

“Does videoconferencing limit the ability of rural residents to participate in the grand jury process?” he asked.

Because internet access can be especially expensive in rural Alaska, “Does it create a situation where people who are more affluent will be participating in the grand jury process?” he asked.

Jury access is already a significant issue in rural Alaska. To save money, the state of Alaska intentionally exempts more than 150 small towns and villages from jury service. It’s simply too expensive to fly jurors from those places to the courthouse.

In 2019, the state court of appeals ruled that the practice is not discriminatory, but the issue has been appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court and remains on the minds of some state lawyers.

Roetman said it’s been on his mind too, but he thinks that if successful, videoconferenced grand juries could fix the problem rather than become part of it. Because teleconferencing is possible by cellphone and smartphone access is growing, “we could potentially bring in jurors who have never had jury duty before.”

Muse and Earthman also said a teleconferenced grand jury might deliberate differently or behave differently. Both said the issues are surmountable.

“We’ll adapt to it,” Earthman said.

“My thought is the sooner we get back to normal, whether it takes a year or so, the better. In the meantime, this Zoom thing may help,” he said.

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