Jackson County judges are finding that allowing a little input from the men and women sitting in the jury box can go a long way toward keeping jurors engaged and willing to serve again.
Juries play an important part in our democratic system, said Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Dan Harris.
"We want our citizens involved, in authority and empowered," he said.
But Harris acknowledged the justice system still struggles with the problem of juror apathy.
"Let's face it," Harris said. "A lot of people just don't want to be here."
Harris was intrigued when he read a 1998 study published by the American Bar Association that suggested if jurors were allowed to ask questions during trials, it would increase their willingness to serve, he said.
That supposition was taken for a test-drive in Arizona in 2000. It became law in Oregon in 2002, Harris said.
The new law didn't require judges to allow questions, Harris said. But it authorized them to use jurors' questions if appropriate.
"Over the years it's gradually caught on," he said. Harris estimates between 45 percent and 50 percent of sitting judges in Oregon now allow jurors to write out questions while witnesses are on the stand and pass them to the judge for review.
Judge Lorenzo Mejia initially was hesitant to allow jurors to question witnesses.
"I had a fear of doing so in emotional cases," he said.
But Mejia has since changed his mind as he's seen jurors respond to being included in the case, he said.
"I've been (allowing juror questions) a lot more lately," Mejia said.
At the July 20 attempted murder trial of defendant Charles Alexander White II, Mejia fielded juror questions.
One asked a very pertinent question related to the March shooting of Timothy James "T.J." Sheeler of Medford, Mejia said.
Medford police Detective Bill Ford had testified that multiple witnesses saw White shooting Sheeler. Others saw him running from the scene. Still more witnesses were prepared to testify children were playing in the west Medford neighborhood as White sent bullets flying in the early evening hours, Ford said.
Before Ford left the stand, Mejia asked the jurors whether they had any questions for the lead detective in the case.
One juror wanted to know about visibility at the time of the crime, Mejia said.
"I do think sometimes (jurors) ask just the right question that nobody else asked," Mejia said. "And it confirms they're paying attention."
The trial was halted and jurors were excused when White pleaded guilty after just a single day of graphic testimony. He was sentenced to more than seven years for the Measure 11 crime.
At the foot of the courthouse steps the morning of the plea, jurors Shara Baack, John Weygand, Judy Durkee and Marc Salvatore discussed the abbreviated trial.
They said they were surprised to learn they could ask questions during trial. Each said the process was informative and inclusive. All had high praise for Mejia.
Salvatore said the experience had given him "a new faith in the justice system."
Several said they were hoping to be excused during a lengthy questioning session where they were asked several personal questions. Now they say they would be more willing to serve again.
But the jurors also were left with questions about motive. They noted Sheeler, who is white, and White, who is black, had previous drug convictions.
"Priors is the most frequently asked question," Mejia said. "They always want to know if there were prior convictions."
The question is not allowed, he said. Jurors also are not allowed to ask questions of witnesses after they have been dismissed or during deliberations, Mejia said.
White's defense attorney, Christopher Missiaen, objected to the juror questions but was overruled by Mejia.
Defense attorneys are most likely to object to the inclusion of jury questions in their cases. And some judges remain concerned the questions could help the state's case, Harris said.
But other attorneys say allowing jury questions provides "a new opportunity to get feedback from the triers of fact," he said.
"We (drafted this law) to try to improve the system. Overall it's been a good experience," Harris said, adding he has seen jury questions change the course of a trial and even be used in closing arguments.
Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail email@example.com.