Questioning of Witnesses by Jurors



A small number of states have changed their laws and court rules to allow jurors to ask witnesses questions, either orally or in writing through the judge. Written questions submitted in advanced allow attorneys for both sides to make objections based either on the ground they would violate the rules governing the admission of evidence or would result in prejudice against their clients.

The states that expressly encourage judges to allow jurors to question witnesses are Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Nevada and North Carolina. Out of these jurisdictions, Arizona, Florida, and Kentucky require that judges allow jurors to ask written questions. The respective highest state courts of Indiana and Kentucky have ruled jurors have a right to ask questions of witnesses.

Other jurisdictions give a more restricted endorsement of this practice. In Pennsylvania and Michigan, the respective state supreme courts have said it is permissible at the discretion of the trial judge. Texas does not permit jurors to question witnesses in criminal trials and Georgia law requires all questions to be written and submitted to the judge. Only Mississippi law expressly forbids jurors from questioning witnesses.

Plaintiffs of civil trials and prosecutors in criminal proceedings favor this practice because it assists them in sustaining the burden of proof required in order for them to win their case. When jurors ask questions, they are able to gain a better understanding of the facts brought into evidence, especially when it is highly technical, such as DNA analysis. Bias in members of the jury that was undetected during the selection process can be exposed through questions they ask, enabling the judge to give an instruc-tion against this bias or removing and replacing jurors with alternates.

Defense attorneys in civil and criminal trials are against jurors questioning witnesses at least partly because it may lead to information being disclosed that could be detrimental to their case. If oral questions are permitted, it could put the defense attorney in an uncomfortable position if a truthful answer would prejudice the jury as a whole against their client. One example would be if a juror were to ask if the defendant had a prior criminal record. If the defense attorney objects to the question, the attorney runs the risk of antagonizing the jury. If the attorney chooses not to object, his client may have waived any right on appeal to a higher court that his verdict should be overturned because of the prejudicial nature of the question. Even if the questions are submitted to the judge first in writing, defense attorneys say jurors will inevitably put more weight than they should on their own questions and makes it more likely jurors will rush to judgment without taking into account all the evidence admitted at trial.