/ February 2, 2009

Jury Questions Deemed Wild Cards in Florida Courtrooms

It’s been a year since the Florida Supreme Court adopted rules mandating that jurors be allowed to take notes and ask questions in civil cases. A few Florida judges also allow jurors to question witnesses during criminal trials.
However, many judges and lawyers are still skeptical of allowing the practice in criminal cases because many juror questions  are wild cards in South Florida courtrooms .
”Some of the questions can come out of left field,” acknowledged Miami-Dade Judge Circuit David Miller, who recounted the drunk vs. sober shooting anecdote from one of his criminal cases:
A Miami-Dade man, on trial for shooting his wife to death, took the witness stand and testified he was too drunk at the time to truly know what he was doing. The jury did not believe his story, so one juror asked, “So if you had been sober, would you have had better aim?” The man was found guilty.
But the flip side, Miller said, is that “sometimes jurors ask questions the attorneys didn’t even think to ask.”When it comes to resolving lawsuits, some judges say juror participation can lead to better verdicts.
”The object is to give the jury all the information to make the decisions,” Broward Judge Ron Rothschild said. The better they understand what has been told to them, perhaps the better the verdict.”
But many judges who handle criminal cases are reluctant to allow juror questions in trials where the verdict implicates not just money — but potentially life and death. Brian Cavanagh, Broward’s chief homicide prosecutor stated, ”There is a real and present danger that I think everyone is aware of when jurors start asking questions.”  This is a serious concern since the jurors are not aware of rules of evidence that dictate what can and cannot be asked of witnesses.
The following is the process followed for juror questioning:
After each witness testifies, the judge asks jurors if they have questions. If so, the questions are written on individual sheets of paper and given only to the judge. The judge then determines — with input from attorneys for both sides — if the inquiry is allowable.
Then the witness is brought back to the stand and required to answer the approved questions.
”It’s a whole new wild card that exists in every case,” he said. “A good lawyer has to pay attention to what the jury is asking.”

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