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COURT UPHOLDS JUROR QUERIES – RULING: SAFEGUARDS PROTECT DEFENDANT’S RIGHT TO A FAIR TRIAL

Rocky Mountain News (CO) – Tuesday, June 28, 2005
Author/Byline: Clayton Woullard , Rocky Mountain News
The Associated Press contributed to this report
Edition: Final
Section: News
Page: 6A
Ask away.

Jurors in Colorado can continue to submit questions they would like to ask witnesses in criminal cases, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The justices determined, in a 5-1 vote, that the practice does not necessarily jeopardize a defendant’s right to a fair trial.

“We are confident that, with adequate safeguards in place, a defendant’s constitutional rights will be protected should a juror propound an inadmissable question or should a juror’s bias manifest itself through the questioning of a witness,” the court said.

The ruling put to rest challenges in two cases.

Yvonne Medina, 28, was convicted in 2001 for stabbing her ex-boyfriend. At her trial, a juror asked a prosecution investigator whether it was common for two witnesses to contradict themselves and each other in a trial.

The Supreme Court said Monday that the question was not appropriate but the answer did not infringe upon the defendant’s rights. The investigator responded that witnesses change their stories up to 20 percent of the time.

The second case involved an appeal filed by Philip Irvin Moses, convicted in Aurora in 2000 after he hit a police officer with his car.

Moses’ attorneys had argued that Moses’ rights were violated because jurors may have overheard a conversation between the judge and the lawyers about a juror’s question.

Colorado State Public Defender David Kaplan said the court’s ruling worries him because it potentially shifts the responsibilities in a courtroom.

“I think it’s important that jurors remain in their most important role as finders of fact and not as advocates for one side or another, especially prior to all the facts being heard,” Kaplan said.

But at least one member of the committee that proposed the change in 2000 said Monday that she believes questions from jurors lead to more well-rounded decisions.

“If you could ask that question, it would eliminate all the anxiety. And that anxiety can be very distracting,” said Donna Wheeler, a former juror who has worked to improve the system.

Colorado launched questioning by jurors in September 2000 as part of a pilot program suggested by the state’s Jury Reform Committee. The practice became permanent in June 2002.

Jurors can submit their requests only in writing, and judges must determine whether the question is appropriate. Colorado’s system is similar to that in other states.

As part of the pilot program, which lasted a little more than a year, the committee gathered more than 1,000 questionnaires from jurors, judges and lawyers. The research suggested that, for the most part, opponents’ concerns were unfounded.

Daniel Recht, a criminal defense attorney in Denver and past president of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, said juror questions can work within the system as long as the judge maintains control over the type of inquiries.

“The jury should only be able to ask questions that would be allowable by the attorney,” Recht said. “If the rules of evidence would prohibit a lawyer from asking a question, then the jury should be prohibited from asking the same question.”

INFOBOX

Questions from the jury

Colorado began experimenting with juries asking questions in September 2000, based on the recommendations of the state’s Jury Reform Committee.
* Jurors are allowed to submit written questions to judges, who must weigh their appropriateness with the defendant’s right to a fair trial.

* During the pilot program, which lasted a little more than a year, the committee questioned 1,576 jurors, judges and lawyers. Some of the concerns, raised mostly by defense attorneys, included whether the questioning delays the trial process or puts jurors into advocacy positions.

* More than 95 percent of the judges surveyed said that jurors’ questions did not prejudice either of the parties involved in a trial. The practice became permanent in June 2002.

* Most states allow jurors to ask questions in some fashion. The practice is prohibited in Georgia, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska and Texas, according to the National Center for State Courts.

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