EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Questioning The Jury: Tennessee Court Finds Trial Court Applied Proper Jury Questioning Procedure In 4th Of July Case

I have written a few posts on this blog (hereherehere, and here) about the propriety of allowing jurors to ask questions during trial. The recent opinion of the Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee in State v. James, 2009 WL 1579236 (Tenn.Crim.App. 2009), makes clear that Tennessee allows juror questioning in criminal cases and also clarifies a key detail about how that questioning works.

In James, Ralphelle James was convicted of theft of property valued at $1,000 or more and aggravated burglary. The property valued at $1,000 or more was a 19998 Toyota RAV4, which James allegedly stole from Maxine Bailey on July 3, 2007, and one of the key pieces of evidence against James was the testimony of his girlfriend, who claimed that on July 4th, James told her that he had bought the vehicle from a woman for $1,2000. This proved that James had the vehicle in his possession, and other evidence, such as testimony by a detective, established that the vehicle was stolen.

After the testimony of both the girlfriend and the detective, jurors submitted written questions to the court, and the court, after a bench conference with counsel, permitted counsel to ask the jurors' questions. After he was convicted, James appealed, claiming that the court abused its discretion by allowing these questions by jurors, but the Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee disagreed, noting that the trial court followed the procedure laid out in Tennessee Rule of Criminal Procedure 24.1(c), which provides in relevant part that

In the court’s discretion, the court may permit a juror to ask a question of a witness. The following procedures apply:

(1) Written Submission of Questions. The juror shall put the question in writing and submit it to the judge through a court officer at the end of a witness' testimony. A juror’s question shall be anonymous and the juror's name shall not be included in the question.

(2) Procedure After Submission. The judge shall review all such questions and, outside the hearing of the jury, shall consult the parties about whether the question should be asked. The judge may ask the juror's question in whole or part and may change the wording of the question before asking it. The judge may permit counsel to ask the question in its original or amended form in whole or part.

James also claimed that even if the juror questions were proper, the trial court erred by allowing the prosecution to engage in re-direct examinations of these witnesses after the jury questions were asked. The basis for this question was that  Tennessee Rule of Criminal Procedure 24.1(c)(1) provides that jury questions can be submitted "at the end of a witness' testimony," meaning that there can be no further questioning of the witness thereafter.

The court disagreed, finding that

In Tennessee, "the propriety, scope, manner and control of the examination of witnesses is a matter within the discretion of the trial judge, subject to appellate review for abuse of discretion."...The trial court has well-established authority to permit cross-examination and to control the scope of such questioning. Further, even under the defendant's contention that juror questions are only permitted at the conclusion of a witness's testimony, we note that permitting a witness to be recalled is a decision resting in the sound discretion of the trial judge.



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