Monday, May 13, 2013

Jurors Have Questions Too! The New Wave of Jury Participation at Trial

Anyone that has been keeping up with the Jodi Arias murder trial has seen a rather peculiar and unique participation by the jury throughout the trial, the jury's questioning of witnesses. It is a rather interesting thing. Each juror has the right to submit questions to ask of a witness and in most instances, the judge reads any questions he or she deems appropriate. The witness answers the question just as if one of the attorneys had asked it. Each side can object to the question outside of the presence of the jury and can object to the witness' response just as if the other lawyer had asked the question.

On July 1, 2012, Illinois became the most recent state to jump onto the bandwagon of allowing jurors to ask questions during trial. Before Illinois enacted Illinois Supreme Court Rule 243, jury questions were mandated in other states such as Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, and Wyoming. The benefits in allowing jurors to ask questions at trial are numerous. First, it gives an attorney a snapshot into how his or her case is going and if anything needs to be tweaked in regards to the case theory, presentation of evidence, or overall questioning of witnesses. Additionally, it makes jurors feel like they are more a part of the process and helps alleviate the tendency of jurors to become bored by the monotonous process of trial. Moreover, if a juror is confused by the evidence or a witness' testimony, a juror's question could completely clear up the confusion. Obviously, this would lead to more informed and reasoned verdicts which should be welcomed by all members of the legal profession.

That is not to say that there aren't pitfalls in allowing such questions. More questions lead to longer trials. While it may not matter in a case where there is a plaintiff, a defendant, and one or 2 doctors testifying, cases in which there are a substantial number of witnesses and experts would lead to much lengthier trials. Should that matter? Perhaps not in the criminal justice arena where a person's life is routinely hanging in the balance. Even in the civil arena, shouldn't we strive for jury verdicts which are based upon a juror's full understanding of the issues, the law, and any questions they have during the process? The other potential negative in allowing such questions is that too much emphasis might be placed upon the question of a particular juror. Could a juror's question regarding a red herring issue improperly sway a jury's decision and lead to unjust results? On the other hand, might those questions be asked in deliberations anyway after it is too late for either side to shift the jury's attention back to the main issues of the case?

While relatively new to the legal system, it seems the positives of allowing jurors to ask questions during trial outweigh the potential negatives. Such questions allow jurors to feel more a part of the trial process and at the same provides helpful insight to the attorneys regarding their case presentation at various stages of the trial.

Have you had an experience with jurors asking questions of witnesses at trial? Do you think it is a good practice? Why or why not? All comments are greatly appreciated.

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