A recent blog post by New York attorney Peter DeFilippis raises this extremely interesting question, which has come about as a result of a high-profile Arizona trial currently in progress: the case against Jodi Arias, the woman accused of murdering Travis Alexander. Arias claims that she acted in self-defense. During the trial, the jurors introduced more than 100 scrutinizing questions for Arias to answer. Arizona is one of the few states that expressly permit this practice; other states have varying rules ranging from an outright ban to approval under certain conditions.
DeFilippis is in favor of allowing questions, stating that “the silence between the attorneys and jurors can be deafening: jurors yearn to ask the lawyers questions and lawyers would love to know more about what the jurors are thinking about their cases.”
There certainly are advantages to allowing jurors to ask questions. It can be beneficial for jurors to ask questions when they need clarification about any issues or concerns. If jurors are able to ask questions, they can clear up any issues before jury deliberations begin. By the time the jury is instructed to issue a verdict, attorneys cannot present any further arguments or information, and any jury member that still has questions or concerns may rely on (often untrue) assumptions when deliberating. Asking questions can be especially helpful in civil and criminal cases where the evidence—such as DNA analysis, for example—can be technical and complex. In addition, the ability to question witnesses may keep juries more engaged during the trial.
DeFilippis argues that “this process insures that the jury is better informed and makes its decisions based more likely on facts gleaned from testimony under an oath than conjecture.”
However, there are also drawbacks to permitting questions from the jury. DeFilippis mentions that allowing jury members to raise their hands and ask questions on the spot could be “highly problematic.” If a defense attorney objects to a question—for example, because the question would introduce inadmissible evidence—it could prejudice the jury member who asked the question against the defendant. An alternative method is giving juries the opportunity to submit their questions in writing to the judge, who can discuss the questions with the attorneys, receive any objections, and read certain questions to the witness. Still, this approach also has a few problems. Namely, it could slow court proceedings, and juries that do not hear their questions asked could feel slighted or make an assumption as to why it was not asked.
There really is no easy answer to this perplexing issue. Should jury members be allowed to ask questions in every case, only under certain circumstances, or not at all? Should there be limitations placed on the questions asked or restrictions on how the questions are submitted? What do you think?