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Jurors Smarter Than
January 03, 2006
glad jurors may query witnesses
More than a year after the Colorado Supreme Court
cleared the way for jurors to question witnesses in criminal trials, judges and
lawyers have warmed to the idea.
Colorados courts have phased in jury
questioning over the past decade, starting with civil trials, then progressing
to criminal trials involving less serious charges. Since July 2004, jurors have
been allowed to question witnesses in all trials even first-degree murder
unless the trial judge prohibits questioning based on factors such as the
presence of significant suppressed evidence.
The phase-in has gone more
smoothly than many expected, including 4th Judicial District Judge Thomas Kane.
I really like the reform, he said. The jury questions tend to go
right to the heart of the case. They tend to be very direct, very to the point,
and I think thats a good thing.
When jury questioning was proposed,
many lawyers resisted, Kane said. Now, most seem to like the process because it
gives them clues about what jurors are thinking, he said.
attorney Philip DuBois was one of the resistant ones. He said his fears have
Even in the most serious cases, I cant ever say
that Ive had a client prejudiced by questions, said DuBois, who primarily
handles murder cases.
DuBois previously worried that jurors questions would
cause the trial to veer into issues that were irrelevant or had been ruled
inadmissible, he said. But that hasnt been a problem because judges screen
questions and disallow those about suppressed evidence, prior convictions or
suspects refusal to answer police questions.
In any given case, there
are areas in which I dont want to go, doors I dont want to open, DuBois said.
Thats true of both sides. The fear was that jurors would want to know about
those things and might feel we were hiding things if they didnt get answers.
Instead, good lawyers use juror questions to gauge what evidence and
testimony jurors are interested in, DuBois said. Lawyers can then tailor their
questioning of other witnesses and their closing arguments to jurors
Deputy District Attorney Diana May said prosecutors also
have found juror questions useful.
Jury questions are a very
progressive, effective tool, she said. They help both sides know where the
jury is focusing, and they help you realize if you missed a point.
has tried at least a dozen cases in which jurors were allowed to ask questions.
She said based on her experience, judges allow at least 75 percent of the
jurors questions to be asked.
Fourth Judicial District Judge David
Miller, a former prosecutor and defense attorney in the Air Force, said he was
disappointed to see that the civilian courts did not allow jurors to ask
questions when he switched to civilian law in 1988. Military courts have long
allowed jurors to question witnesses, he said.
I think it benefits the
system because it keeps the jury more engaged, he said. It gives them more
ownership. Theyre not just spectators.
Jurors in civil and criminal
trials appreciate the fact that theyre now allowed to question witnesses and to
take notes, which wasnt allowed before 1997, when Colorados judicial branch
made reforms to address growing dissatisfaction with the jury system, Kane said.
It invests jurors in the case and makes them much more attentive, he
said. It keeps them more focused and I think ultimately helps them make better
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