Jury still out on jurors asking questions

2012-07-21T17:33:00Z Jury still out on jurors asking questionsThe Associated Press The Associated Press
July 21, 2012 5:33 pm  • 

CHEYENNE — The jury is out on whether allowing jurors to ask questions during a trial is helpful.

About 11 years ago the practice was established to assist juries during civil trials, said Diane Courselle, director of the Defender Aid Program at the University of Wyoming College of Law.

"It was part of a movement to help juries better understand the process," she said.

To ask questions, jurors write them down on a piece of paper. The questions are reviewed by the judge and attorneys on both sides before they are read to the witness.

Juries are allowed to ask questions during civil trials in state courts, both district and circuit, Courselle said.

In federal court, whether the jury is allowed to ask questions is decided on a case-by-case basis.

For some, like Laramie County Circuit Court chief clerk Kerri Yarter, having this system in place is great.

"I think it's a good idea," she tells the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. "They need to know the answers."

But Yarter has not seen the process used often in circuit court.

"I've been here 26 years and I've never seen it happen," she said.

But attorney Robert Moxley has seen jurors ask questions during his more than 30 years practicing law.

He said he supports the practice because jury members need to know the facts of a case to determine its outcome.

It is also helpful for attorneys, he said.

"Knowing what is important to (jurors) and where they think your case pivots is immensely valuable," he said. "You can craft your presentation and get insight into their thought processes."

Despite the advantages, there are some difficulties.

Moxley said in some cases, jurors ask questions that can't be answered. Questions may not be admissible for several reasons, such as if they are about facts not in evidence.

"There are lots of questions ... that can't be asked," Moxley said.

Timothy Hancock, a law clerk at the Laramie County District Court, said he has seen a civil trial where many of the questions were not admissible.

"Many of the questions written down weren't used — they weren't acceptable questions," he said. "That means the judge has to look at the questions and get rid of a lot of them."

He also said some questions asked during the trial already had been answered.

"People asked questions, and some were good questions," he said. "But the vast majority had already asked or already gone over."

And although the questions can be useful to cover ground lawyers didn't cover, Hancock said the practice may only be helpful in some cases.

"That's not to say it couldn't be useful," he said. "It depends on the jury. It depends on the facts."

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