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One thing I keep seeing on TV crime dramas like Law and Order is that the defense and prosecution ask questions of those at the bench for the sake of the jury, at times trying to trigger emotional responses to sway a jury's opinion (i.e. trying to get an accused to lose their temper). However, I have never really seen a juror ask someone at the bench a question.

In a recent Australian case in which the convicted murder's appeal was granted for a lighter sentence the judge commented that

the jury could not properly have been satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the element of intent to kill or do grievous bodily harm had been proved.

Given this case was about a man who killed his wife (and I have also forgotten some of the facts about the case), when I heard about this I thought "did the jury not think that when you pick up any weapon you have to be fully aware you can take a person's life or do grievous bodily harm with it?"

But then I remembered that in the crime dramas I have seen (probably not a good idea to assume this is how trials work in the real world), the defense and prosecution may not have revealed to the jury when the murder weapon was picked up and the state of mind of the accused moments before said weapon was picked up, tiny facts which on the surface may not mean a lot.

So I am wondering: are juries able to ask questions of those on the bench during a trial? If not, why aren't they, considering that it's the jury who ends up deciding if the accused is innocent or guilty?

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    Grand jurors ask questions; petit jurors do not. Why, I do not know. Note that it is possible to use a weapon to threaten someone, intending not to cause harm of any kind. – phoog Dec 9 '15 at 23:18
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    What jurisdiction are you interested in? I know that in many US states, the jurors (petit jurors @phoog, in a trial) can question the witnesses, indirectly through the judge. (They write a note to the judge with their question, and if the judge agrees that it's an appropriate question, she puts it to the witness.) – Nate Eldredge Dec 9 '15 at 23:36
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    One should also note the distinction that, in common-law criminal trials, the jury does not really "decide if the accused is innocent or guilty"; they decide whether or not the prosecution has proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt. – Nate Eldredge Dec 9 '15 at 23:38
  • @NateEldredge i was hoping to get a more general sense but if i have to say which jurisdiction it would be Victoria Australia – Memor-X Dec 9 '15 at 23:57
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    I think you've misunderstood the judge's statement. It's not about what the jury actually thought. Remember he was found guilty of murder by the jury. They actually did think he intended to kill his wife. The judge essentially said that no jury that heard the evidence presented could have reasonably concluded that the accused was guilty of murder beyond a reasonable doubt. Also, as far I can tell in this case, R v Baden-Clay, there was no suggestion of a weapon being used. The cause of death was officially "undetermined" with the prosecution suggesting that he smothered his wife to death. – Ross Ridge Dec 10 '15 at 2:43
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First, while Law and Order should not be taken as an accurate depiction of a New York trial, it especially should not be taken as an accurate depiction of an Australian trial. Australian law, while it has some major similarities with US law (both ultimately derive from the law of England), is not US law. With procedural matters (such as "may jurors ask questions of witnesses"), it can potentially differ from court to court.

In general, jurors may not simply ask a witness a question. The jury's job is not to investigate and figure out if the defendant was guilty or not; it's to evaluate the cases presented by each side. US (and Australian, as far as I know) courts use what's known as the adversarial model, where the prosecution and the defense both present the best cases they can and a neutral third party decides which case was stronger. In a US criminal trial, the state is expected to justify why someone should be in jail; the jury shouldn't be helping them justify it. This isn't how all jurisdictions around the world work, but it's how the US does.

One concern with juror questions is that it has the risk that the juror will not be impartial. Jurors are not supposed to get into arguments with witnesses, or to go after them to try to prove a point. In your case, the juror might be introducing an entirely different line of reasoning from the one either side is presenting, and that's simply not their job. People have raised the concern that a juror thinking up questions might be deciding the case before they hear all the evidence, and might give too much weight to the answers to their own questions (or read a lot into it if a question is denied).

There are also rules on what questions may be legally asked; lawyers know these and jurors generally don't, which is why jurors may almost never directly ask a question to a witness. Where they can ask questions, it's virtually always written questions, which the judge reviews, gives to both sides to see if anyone objects, and then reads to the witness in a neutral tone.

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    I don't know how similar the AU system is to the UK (I'd guess more similar than it is to the US), but I've been a juror in England and this is basically how it is here. We could send notes to the judge, we couldn't speak. In the trial I did, an expert witness contradicted a matter of fact the barristers had agreed was not in dispute. I asked the judge whether he could sort out the discrepancy, which he did (in fact he read out my question without offering any chance to object in advance). Prosecution fetched the documents and it turned out everyone was wrong. – Steve Jessop Dec 10 '15 at 10:35
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    @SteveJessop Love the result "it turned out everyone was wrong". But to be honest it doesn't add to my confidence in the justice system (even though in your case it worked well since you noticed it and asked). – DRF Dec 10 '15 at 11:49
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    @DRF: yeah, a court doesn't get everything right all the time. In some sense the defence could have challenged the prosecution to produce the documents and challenged the prosecution's witness for the (minor) mistake. But if the defence barrister doesn't feel that the issue materially helps their case, in an adversarial system they're entitled to ignore it and get on with other things. I asked because I was unsure whether the witness's conclusions remained valid in light of the facts, and he was able to confirm they did. – Steve Jessop Dec 10 '15 at 12:51
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In the UK, the jury cannot directly ask questions (to the witness, to either side's legal team) but can ask the clerk of the court to pass a note to the Judge (indeed, when I sat on a jury a couple of year ago, we were positively encouraged to do this).

What the judge can do in response may be limited, depending on the question: he can explain "points of law" (e.g. to find someone guilty of Grievous Bodily Harm, the prosecution must prove intent, IIRC). In my case I wanted to know if we could see a piece of evidence (a doctor's report) that had been presented by the prosecution and accepted unchallenged by the defence -- we could. The judge cannot "give opinions", but may be able to directly or through one of the barristers elucidate clarification from a witness.

On your more general point (realism of court-room dramas) the most striking difference between TV and real life (from my single experience) was that the entire court process was far more geared around the jury than is (usually) depicted on TV: witnesses are directed to talk TO the jury (not to the barristers or judge); we were encouraged to indicate to the judge if at any time we were uncertain, or "uncomfortable" for any reason (e.g. because of the nature of the evidence, or simply if we needed the toilet). Prior to this, I'd gained the impression that the jury's role was much more "passive observer" (of the legal process) whereas they are the "active target" of everything that happens in the court.

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    I suspect TV works like it does mostly because the lawyers are regular characters on the show, and jurors are not. – cpast Dec 10 '15 at 16:06
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In some jurisdictions in the US the judge allow the jury to submit questions, to the judge, for review and potentially to have posed to whomever it is relevant. (see Ceats v. Continental Airlines). It has become more and more permissible over the past decade, and in some states (I know that AZ and CO it is by right). So long as the judge does not find the question to violate an evidentiary ruling or rule (like mentioning that there is insurance to cover damages), the judge will typically allow it to be asked in those jurisdictions that give the jurors the chance to pose inquiries.

It is certainly tough for attorneys who cannot plan for this, and sometimes it is turns out to be the very question they did not want asked.

The juries are never allowed to ask the questions directly or without review by the judge prior.

  • "sometimes it is turns out to be the very question they did not want asked" - my curiosity is aroused. – Matthew Elvey Aug 27 at 18:50

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