Innovative Practices Help Juror Comprehension
Most jurors view trials as very complex, while judges believe the same trials are fairly simple, reveals a report based on a study by the Jury Trial Project, a group of 51 New York trial judges who recently concluded an examination of ways to improve juror comprehension and participation.
This finding, early in the project's work, confirmed the need to provide jurors with more tools to become active participants in the trial process and to better understand their role.
The final study is based on data collected in 112 trials - 68 civil and 44 criminal - conducted by 26 judges in 14 counties, each experimenting with innovative practices such as allowing jurors to take notes, submit written questions for witnesses and take written copies of the judge's final instructions into their deliberations. Although many of the practices are not necessarily new, many New York judges and attorneys have reservations about using them, believing that they are more likely to complicate or confuse the proceedings rather than aid juror-comprehension. However, judges and attorneys who took part in the study agreed afterwards that these practices improved the fairness of the trials.
Each of the project's five committees has made the following recommendations about the practices studied:
Data was collected on 22 trials where voir-dire openings were used. Nearly 90 percent of the judges and 75 percent of the lawyers thought jurors who heard these "mini-openings" had a better understanding of what the trial was about. This committee recommends that judges allow counsel, with the consent of the parties, to give short statements of their cases to the entire jury panel when jury selection begins.
Substantive Preliminary Instructions
Judges in 35 trials gave jurors preliminary instructions that were more extensive than those typically provided. Research shows that when given more extensive preliminary instructions, jurors have a better understanding of their job. Nearly 90 percent of the judges and 80 percent of attorneys in these trials believed these instructions had a positive impact. Since there are conflicting Appellate Division decisions on such instructions in criminal trials, this committee recommends that legislation be pursued to permit judges, in their discretion and with consent of counsel, to provide jurors with such instructions.
Written Charges for Deliberating Juries
In 39 trials, deliberating jurors were provided with a written copy of the judge's final charge. Court rules permit judges to implement this practice in civil trials, although counsel's consent is required in criminal trials. Most judges believed this practice had a positive effect on the fairness of the trial, as did two-thirds of the attorneys. An overwhelming majority of jurors believed that having the written instructions was very helpful. This committee recommends renewed efforts to obtain passage of legislation to permit judges, at their discretion, to provide a written copy of the charge to jurors in criminal cases.
Though long approved by the New York Court of Appeals, many judges and attorneys believe jurors' note-taking will distract attention from the evidence. In this experiment, note-taking was used in 91 civil and criminal trials. Both the data and anecdotal reports discount this concern. This committee strongly encourages judges to permit jurors to take notes in accordance with existing rules and to provide jurors with note-taking materials.
Juror-Questions for Witnesses
This was the most controversial practice in the study. Jurors in 74 trials were permitted to submit written questions, which were reviewed by the court and discussed with counsel. Judges and jurors were overwhelmingly positive about the experience. Many attorneys continued to have concerns about the practice, although most agreed that it had certain benefits (e.g., focusing jurors' attention and giving counsel insight into jurors' comprehension and need for information). Based on this experience and research elsewhere, and in light of First Department cases holding that juror-questions are a matter of trial court discretion, this committee concluded that judges should have discretion to allow jurors to engage in the practice and has drafted a proposed trial court rule to this effect.
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