In 1st ruling of its kind, SF judge declares witnesses will wear transparent face masks in court

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- A San Francisco judge has ruled that witnesses for an upcoming criminal case will be wearing transparent face masks.

It's the first ruling of its kind as courts grapple with a new coronavirus reality.

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New COVID-19 rules require that everyone wear a face mask inside the courthouse.

Deputy Public Defender Sierra Villaran argued that it would be unfair for witnesses to testify with their face covered.

"We judge facial expressions and microexpressions in milliseconds and in big part these non-verbal cues are what we use to determine credibility, trustworthiness," says Villaran, "Having that sort of visibility is crucial and I think you're going to start seeing this sort of solution implemented across the state and country."

Law professor for UC Hastings College of Law, Hadar Aviram agrees that the pandemic poses complicated challenges for the courts.

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"The big question of course is how do you get a bigger package of due process rights with the person testifying with their face exposed but remotely or with a person sitting in the courtroom with all the biases that come with seeing a person speak with a mask and there aren't really good answers to this question," says Aviram.

Villaran says she's satisfied with the compromise, although she originally proposed a face shield. The judge did not specify what kind of clear face masks will be used.

"I'm hoping that jurors, witnesses, my client and myself can wear those transparent masks in an effective ways," she said.

It's yet another new rule, as trials evolve in a coronavirus reality. A long list of other recent considerations include whether witnesses and jurors should appear via Zoom.

"On one hand you have the problem with putting together social distancing and masking and dealing with public buy-in or lack thereof. On the other hand we have all the data we know about how Zoom discourages productivity and puts people to sleep," said Aviram.

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At Villaran's trial, no witnesses will appear remotely. Jurors are also expected to appear in person.

However, there's discussion about streaming the proceedings to a different room in the same building, in order to allow for social distancing.

"Of course I think it's very important that my client's families be able to attend and be some of the folks who are physically in the courtroom," she said.

Villaran says despite all the coronavirus challenges, it's important trials continue, that her client would be affected should his case be suspended.

"We just have to be extra aware in this current pandemic situation that we are dealing with novel issues and that we need to take it slowly and be considerate and not rush through anything," she said.

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