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Change lets jurors submit questions for trial witnesses
Judges will determine criminal trial rules.
By COLLEEN JENKINS, Times Staff Writer
Published January 4, 2008
TAMPA -- Florida juries, accustomed to silently watching trials unfold before them, now have the right to take a more active role in the courtroom.
As of the first of the year, judges must allow jurors to take notes and, during civil trials, submit written questions for witnesses. Criminal court judges still have discretion about whether to permit juror questions.
The tweaks in the state's jury system follow a nationwide trend toward fuller participation by the citizen deciders of fact.
But plenty of legal types don't agree with the changes.
Their biggest fear is that jurors who ask questions will upset the rhythm and fairness of criminal proceedings.
"I think it will be terrible," said Clearwater defense attorney David Parry.
After the most comprehensive review ever of Florida's jury system, a state committee decided the potential benefits "strongly outweigh" any potential harm. The committee, which included judges, attorneys and former jurors, said jurors should be treated as full partners, not bystanders, at trials.
In October, the Florida Supreme Court adopted many of the group's recommendations. Justice Peggy Quince objected to juror questioning and note-taking during short trials.
Though a handful of states ban juror questions, the majority at least give judges discretion to allow them. Note-taking by jurors is a more widely accepted practice, according to the National Center for State Courts.
Some local judges have allowed both practices for years. Circuit Judge Doug Baird, who hears civil cases in Pinellas County, is one of them.
"Actually, the juries come up with some pretty good questions," he said.
Studies show that jurors who are engaged in taking notes and asking questions leave more satisfied with their verdict. They may pay better attention, too.
There are limits, of course. Jurors can't blurt out legally inappropriate questions such as, "Has the defendant been to prison before?" Instead, they write down their questions, hand them to a bailiff and wait as the judge and attorneys discuss whether a question is relevant to the case.
The question option has been exercised most often in civil trials, when an individual's freedom wasn't at stake.
Circuit Judge Barbara Fleischer isn't convinced that a more involved jury is a good thing for her criminal trial division in Hillsborough County.
"I have some concern there about jurors filling in gaps for the state," she said, noting it is the state's burden to prove a defendant has committed a crime. "On the other hand, this is supposed to be a search for the truth."
Juror note-taking also causes uneasiness for Fleischer, who has never allowed it in her 23 years on the bench. She worries it will distract jurors from watching a witness' demeanor on the stand.
"They have to judge the credibility of these witnesses," she said. "It's really crucial that they're observing them."
Pasco County prosecutor Mary Handsel has been on both sides of the issue.
She tried a first-degree murder case a few years ago that featured a defendant who served as his own attorney and particularly curious jurors who submitted numerous questions.
Despite that mix, things went smoothly. The pace of the trial didn't slow, and Handsel says the questions helped her to better understand jurors' mind-set.
Recently, she served as a juror for a civil trial in Pinellas. She appreciated that the judge allowed jurors to ask questions and chimed in with five or six of her own.
"I was the annoying juror," she said. "There are some things you just want answered."