Kane County courts embrace video technology to move cases forward in COVID era
Today will be a first for Kane County courts: A defendant is expected to plead guilty to a felony charge during a proceeding held via Zoom and accessible to the public through a livestream on YouTube.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reduced suburban courthouses to a crawl, but officials in the 16th Judicial Circuit have taken the lead in using technology to help advance status hearings, plea agreements and other matters.
At the same time, they caution that full-blown virtual trials are not the end goal or even desirable as jurors need to see a witnesses in person to view body language, demeanor and ultimate credibility.
Chief Judge Clint Hull said Kane County is the first circuit in the state use Zoom for some court proceedings. Cook County does video streams for bond call, but the 16th Judicial Circuit has initiated the ability for the general public to also watch a court hearing using video platforms.
"We don't have cameras in every courtroom so you can just pop on," Hull explained. "This is something we've been working on. By no means is it perfected or addresses everything. Every day, we're learning. We've never done this before."
A defendant, defense attorney and prosecutor all must agree to conduct a court hearing over Zoom. So far, its use has been limited to routine appearances or motions that attorneys may argue where they don't have to call witnesses.
People may visit the 16th Judicial Circuit website at http://illinois16thjudicialcircuit.org/ to see a list of courtrooms, each with its own YouTube link. When a Zoom court hearing begins in a particular courtroom, viewers may watch the proceedings but not make recordings or take pictures.
Overall, the move is an effort to give people access to court proceedings where space may be limited because of social distancing guidelines.
"One of the hallmarks of the criminal justice system, as imperfect as it is, is that it's open to the public," State's Attorney Joe McMahon said. "That's the check and balance of our system -- monitor what we in government are doing."
Nearly two weeks ago, McMahon's office worked with the public defender's office to have a mock trial via Zoom.
"It was a little frustrating," Public Defender Rachele Conant said. "If definitely took longer than if we were in a courtroom."
One challenge is questioning witnesses who must examine evidence and verify a chain of custody. Zoom can bridge geographic boundaries, but lawyers can't have a witness examine a weapon recovered from a crime scene, for example.
Defense attorney Gary Johnson, who served a term as Kane County state's attorney in the 1990s, was pleased 16th Circuit officials took the lead but cautioned against expanding use of Zoom to have a full-blown trial.
"You'd hate to do a murder trial or criminal sexual assault trial when people's credibility is key and having witnesses testify over Zoom," Johnson said. "I like the fact that we can do (status hearings and other matters). That's a good thing. But at some point in time, you're going to need a real courtroom or something close."