Alaska court district to test grand jury by Zoom

The seal of the state of Alaska hangs on April 19, 2018, behind the dais where Alaska Supreme Court justices hear cases. (Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

Alaska’s courts will test the use of videoconferencing in grand jury proceedings later this summer in the northwest region of the state. The goal is for residents to hear cases and complete jury service while staying home, to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The pilot project in the Second Judicial District, which includes Utqiagvik, Kotzebue and Nome, is part of the court system’s response to COVID-19. It comes under a special order signed by Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger on June 22.

This spring, the pandemic forced the courts to halt some types of proceedings, due to the difficulty of social distancing in courtrooms. And while in-person grand jury hearings have resumed in other jurisdictions, the pilot project in the Second Judicial District is seen as a way to explore socially distant, and maybe less expensive, court hearings that currently require jurors to travel from their home communities to regional courthouses.

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“It goes without saying that Alaska is spread out,” said Superior Court Judge Paul Roetman, presiding judge of Alaska’s Second Judicial District. “Our district is unique in that we have more than 20 villages, and each of our communities where there’s Superior Courts are regional hubs, essentially. And those greater areas are serviced only by commuter airlines, or if the season’s right, snowgo, boat, four-wheeler, I guess, sometimes.”

The district has already used a video communication system in the past, for example, to link up defendants in correctional facilities to courtrooms, Roetman said. But a high volume of Zoom meetings during the pandemic, as well as a few court systems in the Lower 48 using the conferencing app, caused Roetman to realize that it could work for rural Alaska, he said.

The plan is to still provide court access for jurors, if needed, or help overcoming technology problems for those who are remote. But the order says only the grand jury foreperson is required to be present in the courtroom for grand jury proceedings.

“When these spaces were built and designed, they weren’t designed with six-foot social distancing for 18 jurors,” Roetman said. “So we do have a way to get back into grand jury, but the Zoom method would make it so we wouldn’t have to get anybody together, not at the numbers that a regular grand jury requires.”

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Prosecutors, witnesses, jurors or interpreters will be able to participate by video conference. And the order also says that every participant must maintain the usual secrecy around grand jury proceedings.

Roetman said he trusts Alaskans to follow instructions not to discuss grand jury proceedings and said it will be up to the courts and prosecutors to monitor Zoom video of jurors to make sure they’re paying attention and not showing the grand jury proceedings to anyone else.

The pilot project is expected to begin in August.

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Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and an editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach him Read more about Caseyhere

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