More states let jurors play Perry Mason

Colorado is latest state to enact reforms that let jury members query

When it came time to decide a civil case in Arapahoe County Court earlier this year, Cynthia Bauman was grateful that she and fellow jurors were granted the freedom to pose questions to lawyers during the four-day trial.

Ultimately, that made it easy to come to a verdict, she says.

"It was interesting to see how the lawyers had to react on the spot. They had no clue what we were going to ask," says the Aurora, Colo., resident. "We brought up things that were confusing for us and got very specific answers. That's basically how we came to our decision."

Permitting jurors to ask questions of lawyers is by no means standard practice in US courts. But a growing number of states are now choosing to buck jurisprudence tradition and elevate jurors' role from passive observer to active participant. The right to submit questions to lawyers and witnesses in writing is just one facet of jury reforms being implemented or considered in state courts from Arizona to New York.

Under these changes:

*Jurors are allowed to take notes during testimony.

*They receive juror notebooks, which include trial exhibits, instructions, and key documents.

*They may talk among themselves as a case proceeds, rather than wait until formal deliberations begin.

Not all states are accepting such changes, but most states are considering some degree of reform, experts say. "The word is spreading," says Tom Munsterman, director of the Center for Jury Studies in Arlington, Va.

Behind the reform is a new recognition that while jurors play a critical role in the outcome of a case, traditionally they have been only peripherally involved in the fact-finding process. When jurors are thrust into an atmosphere that is unfamiliar and confusing, it can impede their ability to make decisions, some legal experts say, undermining the judicial process. The reforms aim to better educate and engage jurors from start to finish of a trial.

Three years ago, Arizona took the first steps in American jury reform, adopting radical changes to the state court system. "There was an abiding feeling that we weren't treating jurors fairly," says B. Michael Dann, a Superior Court Justice in Arizona's Maricopa County. "There were verdicts generated in part or in whole from confusion or ignorance. But it wasn't the jurors' fault; it was the system that failed."

Today, Judge Dann considers the Arizona reforms a success. "I take most of my cues from jurors, and the reaction I'm getting is that the reforms are working very well."

Following in the Arizona's footsteps, New York and California adopted reforms of their own - albeit on a more-conservative scale. In Colorado, a new program that closely mirrors Arizona's took effect in on Jan. 1.

Having served as a juror once under the old system, Ms. Bauman says the changes are a considerable improvement. "All in all, I think this will be very favorable [for the court system], and that people will be less leery about jury duty."

But the trend is not without its critics. Many lawyers have been skeptical and worry about the shifting of traditional roles in the courtroom. "A legal system that has endured for hundreds of years isn't to be tampered with lightly," says Denver lawyer Larry Pozner, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "You've got to be conservative on these fads and fashions. In the end, we must have faith in the system. Jurors are important, but they are not the be-all, end-all of the system."

Attorneys also question whether the benefits for jurors will come at the expense of a fair trial. While the more controversial changes - including asking questions, and open discussions of testimony before final deliberations - are now allowed only in civil courts, both Colorado and Arizona intend to experiment with carrying these reforms into criminal courts.

That, Mr. Pozner says, is unacceptable. If jurors get too involved in the process, they are apt to choose sides early on. "It's very problematic," he says. "In the end, jurors are supposed to be neutral. We can't get carried away and turn jurors into advocates."

The federal courts have adopted an equally conservative stance. Even as more states move to implement jury reform, federal judges are taking a wait-and-see approach.

But preliminary research suggests there are no ill effects, at least in civil-court cases. Valerie Hans, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware, headed a study of 200 civil cases in four Arizona counties. The group is now readying its results for publication. "We're not seeing anything striking one way or the other," Ms. Hans reports. Nor is there evidence that jurors, when actively involved in the process, are inclined to prejudice.

Hans, like many other legal analysts, is convinced that jury reform will continue to advance through American courts. "We have a system that's based on amateur fact-finders, and they're put in a situation that is intimidating even for us lawyers," says William Pizzi, a law professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder. "The system was ripe for change."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.