In a study conducted by the Seventh Circuit Bar Association, seven concepts were tested to see if they enhanced the jury trial process. The project tests began in October 2005 and ran through April 2008. They studied 50 civil jury trials and reviewed the survey results. The surveys were submitted by 434 jurors, 86 lawyers and 22 judges who were all participants in the trials.
What was tested?
The seven concepts that were tested included:
- Allowing jurors to ask questions of the witnesses during the trial.
- Limiting presentations by lawyers.
- Providing jurors with preliminary instructions before evidence was presented.
- Using 12 person juries in civil trials. In Kentucky, state courts use 12 person juries and only nine jurors must agree for a verdict.
- Allowing lawyers to make statements to the jury between witnesses during the evidence phase of the trial.
- Having jurors fill out questionnaires for the jury selection process.
- Providing jurors with guidance about how to conduct their deliberations.
The results of the test
The conclusions indicated that all involved in the trials, the judges, attorneys and jurors, found the concepts to be effective in aiding juror understanding and satisfaction of the trial process. More than three-quarters of the jurors reported that being able to submit written questions to the witnesses aided in their understanding of the facts being presented. Also, more than three-quarters of the jurors found that having preliminary instructions helped in their understanding of the case. The judges involved in the cases indicated that the jurors having the ability to ask questions and having preliminary instructions increased the fairness of the trial and did not reduce the efficiency. The Seventh Circuit Bar Association American Jury Project Commission recommended the use of both concepts.
How do the courts work in Louisville?
Many of the Judges in Jefferson Circuit Court allow the jury to ask questions. This is usually after both attorneys have finished questioning the witness. At this time, any juror wishing to ask a question would write it down and hand it to the sheriff. The sheriff would give the written question to the judge. When that happens, the attorney would be called to the bench and advised of the question outside of the hearing of the jury and asked if they had any objections to the question. If there were no objections, the Judge would read the question to the witness and the witness would answer. The attorneys would be given the opportunity to ask follow up questions.
Although this procedure might seem cumbersome, it works very well. It gives the juror the chance to ask questions on anything that is not clear to them. They are thus better informed and a better juror. It also allows the attorney to get into the mind of the jury. This is helpful in forming trial strategy.
I'm rarely involved in a trial where preliminary instructions are read to the jury before the evidence has been presented. The instructions are normally given by the Court to the Jury at the close of all evidence and after the closing arguments. I would think this would be helpful. The jurors are to deliberate where they will apply the law to the facts as presented in court. Knowing the law before the end of the case would be helpful to a jury, allowing them to focus on more important elements of proof. In any civil trial there are many elements to consider and having this guide could be very beneficial.
I have not heard whether Kentucky is looking at formally adopting any of these procedures state wide. It is normally left to the discretion of the individual trial court. We have the best system in the world, but there is room for improvement. I am glad that there are studies that help us find ways to improve the jury trial system.