Monday, March 24, 2003

Jurors to question witnesses

Clermont County pilot program will start in April

By Marie McCain
The Cincinnati Enquirer

BATAVIA - Clermont County residents who serve on juries in Common Pleas Judge William Walker's courtroom could soon find themselves taking a more active role in the criminal justice system.

Walker is one of 50 judges statewide - and one of just two in Greater Cincinnati - to take part in a pilot project designed to help the Ohio Supreme Court Task Force on Jury Service evaluate the increased involvement of jurors in the trial process.

In those participating courts, jurors will be allowed to submit their own potential questions for witnesses through the judge or the attorneys; receive a "juror notebook" throughout a trial that could include important exhibits or court instructions; and be allowed to take notes during a trial.

"What we're trying to do is take some of the mystery out of the trial process," said Walker, who spent Friday in Columbus in a daylong training session for the new project.

Clermont County Common Pleas Judge Robert Ringland also will participate in the program.

The program is expected to begin in April and last for about six to eight months. The results will be analyzed and a formal recommendation will be made to the task force, officials said. The Ohio Supreme Court will then decide whether these temporary "non-traditional" practices become permanent.

Some Ohio judges already allow jurors to take notes during trials, but few actually allow jurors to ask questions during a trial.

The practice has not been approved by the Supreme Court and is at the center of a debate in the legal community.

Those opposed to letting jurors ask questions fear the practice would complicate a trial or taint a verdict.

But those heading up the project say it is an attempt to make jurors feel more involved and more effective. The nature of their service sets them apart already. The current system treats jurors like pariahs to be avoided for fear of influencing their decisions, experts say.

"Our mission is to help trial jurors be more ... comfortable with the trial process, improve public willingness to serve on juries, equip trial jurors to be better informed about the cases they decide, and enhance public confidence and respect for the jury process and the justice system," said Fairfield County Common Pleas Judge Joseph Clark, who heads the Supreme Court's task force on jury service.

Other facets of the project:

• Attorneys will give "mini-opening statements" either before or during a trial to give jurors context and clarify the reason a specific witness is being called to testify.

• Judges will cut down on legal jargon and speak in "plain English" when instructing jurors.

"This is a process that I'm really excited about trying out in the courtroom," Walker said. "I think it will improve everybody's feeling about the process and that's really what this program is about - trying to make sure the ... process is fair and one which is reaching the right conclusions."


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