Jurors get chance to pose questions to trial witnesses

`Interactive experience' leaves judges, attorneys with mixed feelings

July 06, 2000|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - For the past six months - much to their delight and to the chagrin of counsel - jurors in civil trials in a dozen New Jersey courtrooms were allowed to direct questions to witnesses.

In an experimental program that just ended, the Superior Court jurors, who normally can only listen during trials, became cross-examiners. They scribbled questions on pads of paper, handed them to the court attendant and waited for the judge to read them aloud if the questions were deemed admissible.

The program forced attorneys to share the floor with jurors in trials conducted in a selected courtroom in 12 New Jersey counties, including Burlington, Camden and Gloucester. Jurors also could take notes, a practice previously allowed only by a few judges.

According to judges, the jurors' questions often were incisive, and some even influenced the outcomes of cases.

During a trial for injury damages before Judge John T. McNeill in Camden County Superior Court, a juror asked whether the air bag had deployed during the car collision. The witness said it had not, indicating that the collision was not severe enough to cause serious injury. McNeill said the jury dismissed the claim.

The program is stirring much debate even as it is gaining ground: Arizona pioneered it, and Massachusetts, Colorado, California, Maryland and Virginia are considering or implementing it, but Pennsylvania's Supreme Court has rejected it. Judges are appreciative. Lawyers fear a loss of control. Jurors are thrilled and report more satisfaction in an assignment that in New Jersey pays $5 a day and often requires sitting through days of tedious testimony.

In Judge Jan M. Schlesinger's courtroom in Burlington County last month, the six members of a civil panel leaned forward in their seats, cocked their heads, and listened intently. Two of them took notes as an expert witness monotonously attested to the business decline the plaintiff said he had experienced after slipping on spilled oil in a Hainesport, N.J., warehouse and hurting his head.

The judge then asked if the panel had questions for the witness.

A woman asked why the witness had relied on one set of data instead of another. Apparently amused by the new procedure, the judge and lawyers, all smiling, retreated to the judge's chambers to discuss the validity of the question. Minutes later, when the question was read to the witness, the juror beamed and other jurors nodded. The jury went on to reject damages against the warehouse's landlord.

Sharon Reid of Bordentown, N.J., a pharmaceutical-company manager who served on a Burlington County jury in February, said the experience made her feel "like we actually were taking part in the trial rather than just sitting in the jury box and listening. It was more of an interactive experience."

"It made a big difference because you could understand everything better before you went into jury deliberations," said Janice Carlis, a computer worker from Edgewater Park who participated in a Burlington County trial in April.

"The deliberations went much faster," she said, saying a verdict was rendered in less than four hours.

Trials don't always go faster when jurors ask questions.

In one, a jury posed more than 200 questions, adding about five hours to a week of testimony. The judge finally admonished the jurors to narrow their scope.

"Attorneys do a lot to pare down a trial to keep it short, and now the jury can throw a monkey wrench into that and ask for information you didn't think was appropriate to throw in," said Louis A. Podel, a lawyer who practices in Marlton, N.J.

"Some of the questions made my hair stand up because it almost sounded like they didn't believe my client," he said. "But then they did the same thing to the other witnesses. They just cross-examined everyone."

While he has misgivings, Podel said he believed a juror's question had helped his client, a teen-ager, win a $450,000 award for head and knee injuries in a car accident.

One juror, he said, posed "an `Aha!' question," thinking he had caught the plaintiff in a lie, only to find out he had his dates mixed up. "If jurors have concerns about my witnesses, this gives [the witnesses] a chance to explain," Podel said.

The jurors, who traditionally are instructed to remain mum until it is time to render a verdict, were relieved they could air questions that troubled them.

"If I couldn't ask questions, I would have been frustrated. ... I wouldn't feel as comfortable making a decision. You felt like you were closer to the truth," said Louise Wilcox, a Medford, N.J., flight attendant who participated in a medical-malpractice trial before Schlesinger in the spring.

Arizona is the only state that gives jurors the right to pose questions in all criminal and civil trials.

Arizona Superior Court Judge B. Michael Dann, who has written articles on the subject, said the purpose was "to create more educated and more democratic juries. It increases the chances the jurors will understand the evidence and the law."

Tom Munsterman, who studies jury practices for the National Center for State Courts, said the innovation is slowly gaining acceptance. "Why not give the jury the information they need to do the job? ... Why should the jurors wait until the end of the trial and find out that no one else got it either?" he said.

But others are not so sure.

"It's frightening," said James A. Ronca, an assistant Burlington County prosecutor, adding that he hopes the New Jersey Supreme Court does not mandate the program statewide after it analyzes the results of its pilot program. "As an attorney, I want to have control of my case. ... My big fear would be of a juror who's not truly impartial sabotaging the process and influencing the other jurors."

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