Given Western Alaska’s sprawling geography, teleconferencing has been used for for bail hearings and similar proceedings. Later this summer, however, prospective jurors in the Second Judicial District will receive questionnaires about their Internet access and comfort with computers for a test project allowing grand jury proceedings by teleconference.

“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.”

The system will not be used for trials, and jurors will still be allowed in the courthouse. Those who can’t or prefer not to participate virtually will be called in physically. Those who can participate online will be asked to connect via Zoom from a quiet, private room. Prosecutors will be able to call witnesses and show exhibits to the jurors and the jury foreperson will be in the courthouse on a court-issued laptop when it’s time for deliberations.

Ben Muse, regional supervisor for the state Public Defender Agency, has voiced some concerns with the proposal. “We’re altering the grand jury process in a pretty significant way, I think, in moving to video conference,” he said. “Does video-conferencing limit the ability of rural residents to participate in the grand jury process? Does it create a situation where people who are more affluent will be participating in the grand jury process?”

Roetman points out that video conferenced grand juries could fix the problem of jury participation for rural Alaskans. The state of Alaska currently exempts more than 150 small towns and villages from jury service due to the high costs and difficulties of transportation. As teleconferencing is possible by cellphone and smartphone access is growing, “we could potentially bring in jurors who have never had jury duty before,” said Roetman.