As the world slowly starts to return to business, new challenges are faced by restrictions in the courtrooms. Combining the nerves of regular testimony with personal protective equipment (PPE) on the stand, along with temperature checks, and new check‐in procedures, adds to the stress of everyday testimony. However, many courtrooms are opting for another choice, virtual testimony. What does this mean for confrontation clause challenges? How will scientists convey their findings to a jury through the zoom lens?
At their presentation this year, Rachel Oefelein and Tarah Nieroda will be highlight some of the challenges and advantages experienced in the changes of courtroom testimony in 2020 and beyond.
We chatted with Rachel and Tarah about the challenges and benefits of testifying virtually and additional preparation that may be required we doing so.
We’ve likely all seen the video where the lawyer couldn’t turn off the cat filter, but aside from that, what are some of the challenges that come with testifying virtually?
Tarah: One tool I have always used in the court room is a jury’s faces and their expressions. Reading them to judge their understanding of what it is that I am explaining. In some zoom setups you may only see the prosecution or the defense or you may see the jury in the distance. Which makes viewing their expressions difficult or even impossible.
Rachel: WiFi! Successful hearings and trials are reliant on every participating member having reliable WiFi, lots of pauses while someone reconnects has been a challenge.
What additional considerations need to be made when testifying virtually? Is there additional preparation needed?
Tarah: I honestly believe you need to be more prepared for a virtual testimony rather than an in person because in some situations you may not have the jury viewable to gauge their understanding of what you are explaining. To prepare for a virtual testimony, I review my case file and try to come up with difficult questions that could be asked and practice answering them. The trick is being able to explain them to an individual that is outside of the field of forensics so I will use a friend as a practice jury to determine if they understand my answers.
Rachel: Preparing your surroundings, ensuring if at the office you are in a secure room where people will not be walking by in view of camera. Making sure you are in a quiet space so a coworker passing by the office, or a barking dog do not distract from the testimony being given.
What are some of the benefits to testifying virtually? Do you see virtual testimonies continuing in the future?
Tarah: A significant benefit to virtual testimony is the shortened length of time it requires. If you consider the time it takes to travel to and from the courthouse, the minutes or hours that are then spent waiting for your turn and then if your participation extends over multiple days. Virtual testimony has been accepted in some courts before the pandemic and now the courts that previously were reluctant to consider virtual testimony now see the benefits, especially when cost and time of the individual and agency are considered.
Rachel: The ability to use more demonstrative aids. It has been very helpful to have visuals readily available (when the judge allows it) to better illustrate a point, whereas, with in person testimony every demonstrative aid needs to be prepared well in advance of testimony.
In your region, have trials gone back to being held in-person? What additional safety precautions have been put in place, and what has it been like navigating these new precautions?
Tarah: In my region in-person trials have started to return and every court system is different. Some just have plexiglass partitions and you only need to wear a mask when you are not speaking. While other courts that I have been to require you to testify with masks on as well as having the multiple partitions between all within the court room.
Rachel: Leaving lots of extra time for security! Getting through temperature checks and signing waivers and/or answering questions prior to entry really slows down the security process. The variation in what courts want for personal protective equipment as well, i.e., clear masks for the hearing impaired so they can read your lips.
What tips would you give to someone who is just starting out in the field of forensics, or what is the best advice that you’ve received?
Tarah: The best advice I ever received also happens to be the same advice that I give today. To never give up and keep on trying, that once you get your foot in the door even if it is at the bottom of the barrel in an entry level position that is all you need to start a career in this industry.
Rachel: Take every opportunity! Candidates with at least some experience tend to shine, not to mention many interns end up getting hired by their host laboratory.
Has there been anything good that came out of the pandemic that you’ll continue doing going forward?
Tarah: I have started roller blading and bike riding with my family so now on weekends we make sure to spend as much time outdoors as possible.
Rachel: Lots more FaceTime, Zoom, Skype, etc. I think being able to see someone’s face is so important in communication and I will continue more ‘video chat’ both personally and professionally.
What is your favorite Disney character and why, or which Disney character do you most relate to and why?
Tarah: My favorite Disney Character is Princess Aurora, I love her story from the movie Maleficent because it shows her as a fun, life loving individual who also looks for the best in people and is the ultimate optimist. She is my favorite enough that I named my daughter after her.
Rachel: Ariel, she has the best songs and I love being in the water 😊 I relate to how important love is to her and her inquisitive mind.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?
Tarah: I could detect when someone was lying, honesty is something that is very important to me in both my personal and professional life. Although if I could detect lying, I should probably be an officer or a lawyer instead of a scientist.
Rachel: Teleportation so I would never have to sit in traffic or be on a bad flight again! Plus, you could see all the people you love whenever you want!
What’s one thing that others may not know about you?
Tarah: I am not one of those individuals that wanted to be a scientist their whole lives. I wanted to be an artist until I was 17 and had already been accepted to multiple art colleges before changing my mind.
Rachel: I find dolphins terrifying but happily swim with sharks!
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