(AP) — The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday sent three different cases back to lower courts after appeals stemming from the use of live video participation during trials, which has occurred frequently in the state during the coronavirus pandemic.
The court vacated the convictions, saying it could not find that the defendants’ constitutional right to confront their accusers in court is being upheld if witnesses are allowed to testify via video, or if the defendant is required to appear on video.
It was not immediately clear how or if the rulings would affect other court hearings or trials in which video testimony has been used.
The decision follows a ruling last week from the Minnesota State Court of Appeals, which found that allowing a witness to testify via live, remote, two-way video did not violate a defendant’s right to confront an accuser.
In a case out of St. Louis Circuit Court, the high court reversed and remanded the conviction of Rodney Smith for two counts of second-degree statutory rape because a witness testified via video about DNA evidence. During the trial, Smith’s accuser recanted her claims and others testified in person that she had dropped her allegations.
An investigator with the St. Louis Metropolitan Crime Laboratory, Erik Hall, testified on video because he was on paternity leave. He said DNA evidence taken from the victim matched Smith, who was convicted and sentenced to five years of probation.
In its ruling Tuesday, the court said Hall was not a victim or a child in the case, and the circuit court did not find that he was unavailable to testify in person. The judges said Hall’s testimony was not harmless because the DNA was the only physical evidence showing sexual contact between Smith and the alleged victim.
In a case out of Jackson County, a juvenile accused of shooting a man was found to have committed acts that would constitute first-degree assault and armed criminal action if committed by an adult.
He was required to testify at an adjudication hearing via two-way video from a juvenile detention center, while attorneys and other witnesses appeared in person in court.
The circuit court judge said at the time that the two-way video was preferable — and explicitly allowed by Missouri Supreme Court COVID-19 directives — because numerous detention centers had trouble keeping the virus out of their facilities and juvenile centers had banned youths from being taken to courts to limit exposure to the virus.
The Supreme Court said it had been careful to ensure that its COVID-19-related directives would not be permitted to violate a juvenile’s constitutional rights. If a circuit court determined an adjudication hearing must be held, the court’s COVID-19 directives prohibit preventing an accused juvenile from appearing in person if he objects to appearing remotely, the court said.
“This Court recognizes the devastating toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken in this country and our state, and the substantial impact the pandemic has had on all aspects of society,” the judges said in their ruling. “Nevertheless, generalized concerns about the virus may not override an individual’s constitutional right of due process to be physically present for his juvenile adjudication hearing at which his guilt or innocence will be determined.”
Judge W. Brent Powell wrote a concurring opinion in the case but cautioned against construing the ruling too broadly. He said excluding a defendant from a trial or court proceeding does not automatically violate due process rules.
In this specific case, Powell wrote, the circuit court could have tried other ways to ensure that the juvenile was in the courtroom to more easily confer with his attorney and observe the witnesses.
In another Jackson County case involving a juvenile accused of first-degree statutory sodomy, the alleged victim’s mother and babysitter were allowed to testify via video conference.
The court again ruled that the video testimony violated the defendant’s right to confront his accusers. The judges said the circuit court did not make any findings regarding the health or other circumstances that would have required the witnesses to testify remotely.
The ruling also said the Supreme Court’s COVID-19 directives expressly identified juvenile delinquency proceedings as an exception to the suspension of in-person proceedings.