We The Jury Need More Information? Or: Baliff, Could Ya Bring Us An Encyclopedia?

This question popped into my head while watching a battle of expert witnesses on television (I never knew ballistics could be that confusing). What I want to know is: can a member of a jury request more information on a subject pertinent to the case he or she must decide upon? The average person may not understand the finer points of criminal psychology, forensic pathology, and so forth, and I can imagine situations where the juror is left more confused than ever after two lawyers explain and/or mangle the probably already confusing testimony of two or more experts with opposing views on rather specialized subjects. It seems to me that a juror should be able to request more information on . . . well, just about anything. I can, however, see some potential problems with jurors getting extra info once they’re all locked away. But still . . .

Also, can a juror ever request guidance from a judge on something–say, some tricky point of law or something?

I feel like I should already know the answers to these questions, but it was never covered in school, I’ve never been a juror, and my few moments in court were handled with just a judge.

Thanks in advance, Dopers. :slight_smile:

Jurors can always send notes to the judge; however, the judge’s instructions to the jury are supposed to be sufficient, and any additions will likely be contested by one of the lawyers, or provide grounds for an appeal.

Expert testimony is evidence, and jurors may not add to it, not even with their own independent knowledge. I suppose a judge might, with the acceptance of both parties, allow some communication for the purpose of clarity, but I can’t imagine that it happens very often.

Surely you overstate. If a prosecutor makes an utterly absurd assertion of fact, and a Public Defender does not refute it, can I not use my knowledge to cast my vote?

and we wonder why we get bizarre jury rulings:

jurors are not allowed to excercise their own judgement - IOW, “common sense is not welcome if the judicial process”

No. In a legal dispute, whether civil or criminal, one side always bears the burden of proof. If the jury can’t figure it out, whether due to poor explanations by witnesses or otherwise, they must return a verdict for the side that does not bear that burden.

A tiny handful of judges do allow juries to submit written questions to witnesses, but that’s only during trial, not deliberations.

Yes. Jurors can ask the judge to explain the jury instructions. For the most part, however, all that happens is the judge tells them to follow the instructions as they have been given to them, and to decide the case to the best of their ability.

Having been a juror, I can say that if you’re unclear about some point of law, the judge will clarify as best as he/she can.

If you’re confused about expert testimony, then AFAIK you’re on your own.

I think there is some value in distinguishing between expert opinion and ordinary common sense. The jury is permitted - indeed, encouraged and expected - to draw inferences based upon their own experience, knowledge, and wisdom in assessing the credibility of witnesses and assigning weight to the evidence presented.

However, when matters are presented in evidence that are outside the ken of the ordinary laymen, such evidence is presented through the use of experts. As minty suggests, the side offering the evidence is the side that must convince the jury of that evidence; if they fail to explain it, the jury is entitled to disregard it.

The jury may not fill such a hole and supplement the evidence they’ve heard at trial with external sources, even neutral ones like encyclopedias or superbly accurate ones like the Straight Dope books.

  • Rick

What if it is the defence’s technical points ( perhaps in response to the prosecution’s technical points) that the jury doesn’t understand? Are they supposed to disregard those?

I was a juror a few months ago in a contract law case related to a fire in a strip mall that had damaged a business in that mall. The question was on whether the mall owners were responsible for the fire, as it began in a common area, or not. The two scenarios presented to us by the lawyers were that either the fire started with the lights, the maintance of which falls on the mall owners, or with the sign for the business involved, which is their responsibility. Each side called on expert witnesses, who all referred to the book of fire investigation procedure put out by some government organization or other (I forget the exact details.) Anyway, when it came to deliberate, we asked if we could see this book to compare the pictures in it with the pictures of wires we were given as evidence. Since the book was not entered into evidence by either attorney, we were -not- allowed to see it although it had been referred to by each expert witness. In addition, when we wanted some clarificaiton of the law involved that the judge had given us when instructing us, we asked for it in our note in writing, but instead we were shuffled back into the courtroom to hear it again verbatim (not helpful - we needed to -see- it, to parse the legalese). Now, that last issue may have been just our particular judge, but they were very strict with us on what we could and could not have based on the evidence entered in the case.

That’s silly. If a particular document is refered to by both sides, then it should be “pseudo-evidence” or something, so that you can look it up and compare what was said by one person versus what was said by another. It’s ridiculous that life-or-death decisions can be made by such hugely uninformed people, even if they WANT to know more in order to make a proper decision. Stupid stupid laws.

I just got myself out of jury service on Wednesday. (I don’t know if I can go into it. Since the trial hadn’t started, I should be able to talk about it all I want.) Anyway, the judge said they jury could not so much as get a definition out of a dictionary. I the jury needed a definition, then they were to write a note to be passed to the judge.

Well …

In one case I read of in Civil Engineering magazine, a licensed Civil Engineer WAS allowed to use his own expert knowledge to present to the other jurors his opinion of why or why not such-and-such could have happened. I’m thinking that the other side appealed and the appeal court upheld the original court’s verdict.

I’m going to go see if I can find the cite.

When I was in college, a furniture store in Branford, Ct caught fire, with a firefighter death resulting from the fire. The owner of the store was accused of setting the fire (I still don’t know what the final verdict was).

The first trial ended as a mistrial, for reasons I no longer remember. The second also did, but because of a juror. A question during the trial between the two sides debated the combustibility of floor tiles in the furniture store. One of the jurors didn’t like the expert testimony that was given during the trial, so he went to Home Depot (I think…it could have been another store) and asked about the combustibility of the tiles there. When he brought this information back to the other jurors, he was reported to the judge, who declared another mistrial.

Oh, Zsofia, was the document NFPA 921, Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations? Its the standard how-to book on how to investigate a fire. Neat stuff.

Indeed - the red book. One page was entered into evidence, but not the rest of the book. Although this was hardly life or death - we decided both parties were total assholes and didn’t deserve a thing. (Technical legal term, that.)

Interesting how the lawyers can leave some obvious questions unasked and some obvious areas totally blank, for their various reasons, and the jurors aren’t even supposed to speculate on it. You’d think jurors would be able to ask questions of the judge and she could decide if they could be asked of the lawyers or witnesses (one of the fire witnesses was confusing in his drawings and pictures and how he explained them re: which electrical boxes were found and where, and there was nothing we could do to clarify.)

And the Home Depot guy was a moron. We were told like ten times a day that we couldn’t do any outside research, obviously. That even if our regular commuter routes took us past the site, we should avoid it.

Yup, ignorant jurors make the best justice


Bear in mind that under the common law it is not only a mistrial if the jury independently investigates matters, but if the judge does so. This is quite different from the continental system, in which it is my understanding that judges are often expected to undertake their own investigations.

The idea of the courtroom as a sort of tabula rasa seems ludicrous to any intelligent person. But the virtue of this system is that at least on the surface it requires less of the jury and is less open to bias - the jury simply has to sort through who has the better explanation, without developing particular expertise. The burden is therefore on the lawyers, and bad lawyering results in bad decisions.

As questions going before juries become increasingly technical, however, this system is looking less and less attractive. The problem is figuring out what to replace it with. Juries of experts? Hmmm, that might be even more open to abuse - they may have a vested interest in justifying or undermining a particular theory. Dispense with juries altogether? Just try getting the public to agree, let alone trial lawyers. It’s a conundrum.

how about:

bench trails unless both parties desire a jury trial?

currently, if only one party wishes a jury, a jury trial must be held.

guess who wants nice, ignorant, pilable jurors?

or, how about, if not experts, at least jurors with some familiarity with the technical matters at hand?

trail about where an electrical fire started? how about asking:

“what is Romex” of potential jurors?

I’m with heathen and Oxy. In today’s world, this is bull. If it’s disallowed that any juror has independent thoughts, then why even have a jury? The ultimate point is justice, no? That goal is bastardized badly enough as it is intentionally, why screw it up more through ignorance?

If my prosecutor claims that the Eggos a toasted for breakfast the day of the murder were, in fact, agents of Saddam that I was harboring, and my defender was too dim to explain that that’s wrong, I’d want the jurors to be able to call him on it.

[ul]One of Mickey Spillane’s best books. ;)[/ul]


I am quite surprised to read this posting.

You see, only a short while ago, in this very thread, I said:

I am very confused - how could you, having read that, believe that a jury wouldn’t be permitted to disregard an “Eggos are Saddam’s agent” theory?

  • Rick