In USA v. Edward Knight, No. 21-10197 (9th Cir. 2023), the defendant argued that his robbery convictions must be vacated because the district court erred by permitting a juror to participate remotely via Zoom for the first two days of the trial. The defendant argued that this error violated his Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights and that the error was structural and could not be waived; therefore, he was entitled to a new trial without having to show prejudice.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals explained that a structural error deprives defendants of the basic protections without which a criminal trial cannot reliably serve its function as a vehicle for the determination of guilt or innocence, and, it defies analysis by harmless error standards because the right at issue protects some interest other than avoiding erroneous convictions, the effects of the error are difficult to identify or measure, and/or the error is of a nature that always results in unfairness.
The Court found that there was no indication in the record that allowing the juror to participate remotely interfered with the functioning of the jury, somehow made the juror partial or unrepresentative, or impacted the procedures used for the presentation of witnesses. The Court concluded that allowing remote juror participation did not impact the entire framework of the trial in ways that could not adequately be measured on review. Therefore, the Court held that the alleged error was not a structural error.
The Court explained that non-structural errors can be waived. Where a waiver would deprive the defendant of a constitutional right, courts generally require that it be a voluntary, knowing, and intelligent choice among alternative courses of action, made without coercion and with sufficient awareness of the relevant circumstances and likely consequences that would arise from the waiver.
In this case, the defendant was specifically informed on several occasions that he had the right to insist that all jurors be present in the courtroom and indicated that he understood that right. The defendant was presented with various options for dealing with the juror’s situation, including dismissing the juror and replacing them with an alternate, and the defendant was present when counsel identified things that could go wrong with remote participation. The defendant affirmatively indicated that he understood, had the opportunity to confer with counsel, and agreed to the juror’s remote participation. Thus, the Court concluded that the defendant waived his right to have all the jurors participate in person.
The Court affirmed the defendant’s convictions, concluding that the district court did not err in proceeding with a remote juror given the defendant’s knowing, voluntary, and intelligent waiver of any right he may have had to the juror’s in-person participation.